- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 9, 2006

WARRI, Nigeria — Black-masked leaders of a militant group that is holding two Americans hostage and has disrupted world oil markets say they are fighting for justice and economic development.

But, they warned, during a visit to their base deep in the mangrove swamps of the Niger Delta this week, foreign oil workers must leave the region or risk being killed.

“We are not taking hostages in the future,” said a rifle-wielding member of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), which has shut down a fifth of Nigeria’s oil production. “We have sufficiently warned expatriate workers to leave the Niger Delta.”

Another fighter insisted loudly that the group was simply fighting for a fair share of the region’s oil wealth.

“We are not terrorists. We are freedom fighters,” he shouted.

Yesterday, the militant group said its fighters clashed with troops in the delta. In an e-mail, they said one of their vessels was attacked on the Escravos River by four Nigerian patrol boats, sparking a 45-minute gunbattle they said left seven troops dead. The reported skirmish could not be independently confirmed, and military officials could not be reached for comment.

For the visit by the reporter, the militants — clad in camouflage body armor and balaclavas, a head covering with an opening for the nose and eyes — arrived at an arranged rendezvous in a motorboat bristlingwith machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades. White flags, a tribute to their tribe’s god of war, fluttered from the stern.

Mildewed signs bearing a skull and crossbones and the occasional rusting wellhead reveal why they are here.

There are the billions of dollars in oil wealth flowing beneath the surface of the Niger River, but this country is home to some of the world’s poorest people. More than 60 percent of Nigeria’s 128 million inhabitants scrape by on less than a dollar a day, with no hope of employment or education.

In many places, frustration with a government ranked by Transparency International as the third most corrupt in the world has spilled over into violence.

“We have no water to drink, no schools, no electricity, no jobs,” complained one machine-gun-toting youth. “Have you been to [the capital] Abuja? It is paradise there. Why can’t we have that down here?”

His group has masterminded two mass kidnappings in the past three months.

The first abduction, in January, ended with the release of all four foreigners unharmed. But after the Nigerian military ordered retaliatory strikes — against strategic targets or innocent villagers, depending whom you talk to — a second group of nine expatriate workers was seized last month.

Six of the nine have since been released, but the group has held on to two Americans and a Briton because of their countries’ links to the oil industry. Nigeria is the fifth-largest supplier of crude to the United States, normally pumping 2.5 million barrels per day.

The militias know that with 90 percent of their country’s export earnings coming from the oil trade, attacking oil installations is the quickest way to make the government take notice of their demands.

They want an inquiry into killings by the military, promises of development and the release of key leaders of their Ijaw tribe, Nigeria’s fourth-largest and the biggest ethnic group in the Delta area.

One of the men the militants want freed by the government is Alhaji Dokubo Asari, who says he was trained in Libya. His threats of an “all-out war” on behalf of a separatist Ijaw nation drove oil prices to record highs two years ago.

Mr. Dokubo, currently on trial for treason, has said he was originally armed as a political enforcer to ensure the election of the current Rivers State governor, Peter Odili, in 2003. The claim has been verified by a former government official.

Hundreds died in election-related violence at that time, mainly in clashes between the Ijaw and the minority Itsekiri. But after the elections were over, the politicians lost control.

Mr. Dokubo took his guns to the swamps and began threatening oil installations, and now the cycle seems to be repeating itself.

“Most of these militants received their first weapon from the ruling party,” said Dimieari Von Kemedi, a prominent human rights activist.

He thinks the emergence of MEND may signal the beginning of an arms race between politicians.

“Given the weapons now available in the Delta, any serious politician will be looking for bigger and better weapons for their own boys,” he said.

American Macon Hawkins, released by the rebels last week, said his own abduction was carried out with military precision.

“All of a sudden, I looked around and saw six boats with white flags full of armed, masked men,” he recalled.

Adjusting his taped-up glasses, which were damaged in the raid, and clutching a small plastic bag containing a toothbrush and medicine, Mr. Hawkins continued, “Three of them pulled up to the jetty, and three stayed in the river. I ran into the office and tried to phone headquarters.

“The eight soldiers who were supposed to be guarding us ran and hid. Then the men started going room to room.”

One of his abductors jabbed him in the stomach with a rifle, tearing his shirt, while the other rounded up his colleagues, Mr. Hawkins said.

MEND has urged government soldiers in the region to join their revolt and has threatened to assassinate President Olusegun Obasanjo if he visits the area.

The president is rumored to want to change the constitution to allow himself another four-year term. That has caused anger in the Muslim north, where few want a Christian southerner to remain in power, as well as in the oil-rich but underdeveloped Delta, sometimes called the “south-south” of the country.

Residents here have long accused the Muslim north of stealing oil revenues and have threatened to kill the president — who comes from the southwest — if he ventures into their region.

Last week, U.S. National Intelligence Director John D. Negroponte took the unusual step of saying that Mr. Obasanjo’s refusal to rule out extending his rule “is raising political tensions and, if proven true, threatens to unleash major turmoil and conflict.”

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