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The story in photos behind the fight for Nigeria's oil wealth.
More than 200 foreigners have been kidnapped since MEND began its attacks. Most hostages are later released unharmed, but oil production has dropped below 2 million barrels per day, compared to 2.4 million bpd before the attacks and a potential 3 million bpd.
The unrest has forced oil giants such as Royal Dutch Shell, ExxonMobil and Chevron to move all but their most essential foreign staff out of the region, while the drop in oil output has eaten into Nigeria's foreign earnings, compounding the effects of the global economic slowdown.
MEND says it is fighting for greater local control of oil resources, but after three years, the local communities it claims to be fighting for are just as impoverished and even more insecure than before. The oil market has largely factored in the cost of all but the most spectacular unrest and hostage-takings have become an endless cycle of kidnappings for ransom that seem more criminally motivated than political.
After a failed attempt at offering amnesty to the militants earlier this year, Nigeria last week launched its biggest military offensive for years in the Niger Delta. Suspected camps of the oil rebels have been bombed from the air and sea and after hundreds of ground troops have been deployed to try to flush rebel fighters out of local communities near the oil port city of Warri.
Local rights groups have urged security forces to exercise restraint in order to avoid civilian casualties, possibly fearing a scenario similar to that of Sri Lanka, where civilians were casualties when the government recently used a controversial military offensive to defeat the Tamil Tigers rebel movement and end decades of war.
Three people were killed in fighting in Warri on Wednesday, Owen Nanakumor, an Ijaw community leader told Reuters. He said the dead included a woman and a 45-year-old man in a market and added that about 30 people had been arrested.
"It was just a normal cleansing of areas which were thought to be harbouring criminals," military spokesman Colonel Rabe Abubakar also told Reuters. "We are applying minimum force .... There are no casualties on the civilian side.”
It’s unclear what will happen next — whether the government will step up its offensive to wipe out the militants, or whether the rebel fighters will buckle down and harden their stance, possibly plunging the country deeper into violence and unrest, which could have an impact on global oil prices.
Only one thing seems certain: The Niger Delta will remain prey to piracy, kidnappings and violence so long as the population is deprived of the benefits of the wealth flowing underfoot.
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