Militants in the oil-rich Niger Delta on Friday called off a four-month cease-fire with the government, in a move that could plunge this part of Nigeria back into chaos and further disrupt global oil supplies.
The Associated Press reported that militants from the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) vowed to wage a new military campaign dubbed "Hurricane Obama" that would sharply curtail oil and gas shipments from the region.
The ... militants had declared a cessation of hostilities in September after the worst spate of violence in years to hit the Niger Delta, where militants fought rare open battles against the armed forces after years of nighttime sneak attacks and sabotage....
On Friday, the Movement made good on a threat to end the cease-fire if the military engaged its fighters again, saying government forces fired on a camp run by one of its members. The group said it would retaliate with attacks against Nigeria's oil industry in an operation it called "Hurricane Obama."
The militants promised a "sweeping assault" that would "change the face of oil and gas exports from Nigeria."
Reuters said that one faction of MEND, the Niger Delta Vigilante, confirmed an attack on its camp by government forces in gunboats.
"The battle lasted for almost one hour 30 minutes and we were able to sink one of the double-engined boats with all the occupants," said the faction's spokesman, who uses the pseudonym Tamunokuro Ebitari.
There was no independent confirmation of fighting. A military spokesman said he was making checks.
The report added that militants have been holding two British oil industry workers for more than four months, "partly in an effort to dissuade the security forces from attacking."
The news service reported last week that a young girl was shot dead by delta militants when she resisted gunmen who kidnapped her brother. The same day, militants released a Catholic priest that had been kidnapped on Jan. 25.
The Guardian, a Nigerian newspaper, reported that militants accused the government of negotiating in bad faith. It quoted MEND spokesperson Jomo Gbomo as saying:
"During this ceasefire, we had hoped the Nigerian government would take advantage of the cessation of hostilities to embrace dialogue and reconciliation but instead, the government deceived individuals into fake peace parleys where they were arrested and in some cases killed."
Gbomo said the latest attack was an indication that the Nigerian government prefers to make military inroads during the ceasefire instead of efforts towards genuine peace and reconciliation.
Various sources including the BBC say that oil production has dropped by about 20 percent since 2006 due to militant attacks. (See map of delta oil installations here.) The online edition of the Nigerian publication This Day reported that output of Shell Oil, Nigeria's largest oil producer, has fallen sharply.
Nigeria's largest oil producer, Shell, which until a few years ago was producing about 1 million barrels of crude oil a day from its operations in the Niger Delta, saw its output decline drastically to some 360,000 b/d in 2008.
Confirming the fall in production, a company spokesman said the Shell Petroleum Development Company's output averaged 360,000 b/d in 2008, down from 409,000 b/d a year earlier, owing to increased militancy and disruptions to its operations in the region.
The online edition of The Punch, a Nigerian newspaper, warned Saturday that the end of the cease-fire could "soon give way to an orgy of violence."
The oil-rich but impoverished Niger Delta region has produced several violent militant groups and kidnapping gangs since the early 1990s.
Many protest what they say is the exploitation and pollution of the region by foreign oil companies and the central Nigerian government. Heavily armed, speedboat-borne militants prowl the region's "creeks" and launch periodic attacks on oil facilities.
A 2007 background report by the Council on Foreign Relations says MEND emerged in 2006 and quickly drew concern from the US and other governments.
Oil companies, the Nigerian government, and the United States (Nigeria is the United States' fifth largest supplier of U.S. crude imports) are concerned about MEND's ability to disrupt the global oil supply. Though skilled at leveraging international media, the group remains secretive and opinions vary on its power and ability to sustain itself.
The report detailed the group's stated goals:
Since its inception, MEND has articulated three major demands: the release of [Alhaji Mujahid Dokubo-Asari, head of another delta militant group] from prison, the receipt of 50 percent of revenues from oil pumped out of the Delta, and the withdrawal of government troops from the Delta. Its broader aim is "resource control," but it has largely failed to delineate specific long-term goals.
[Editor's note: The original headline misidentified the location of the militants.]