Camouflage-clad attackers raided an Italian oil company’s riverside offices in Nigeria on Tuesday, sparking a gunfight that left nine people dead before assailants fled by speedboat into the oil-rich delta’s waterways.
The attack on Agip’s offices in the southern oil center of Port Harcourt is the latest in a recent rash of violence across the restive Niger Delta that has killed nearly two dozen people, cut petroleum production in Africa’s largest oil exporter and helped push up prices of crude worldwide.
The attackers, wearing army-style uniforms, cruised up behind Agip’s riverbank facility in their boat, forced their way into the compound and stole about $28,000 (euro23,000) in cash before the shoot-out with security forces, said Samuel Adetuyi, the head of the police in the city.
Seven uniformed police, a plainclothed security official and one company employee died in the gunfight that ended when the attackers fled in their speedboat back into the region’s labyrinth of creeks and swamps, he said.
Agip’s parent company Eni SpA said in Italy that it “has temporarily evacuated staff and contractors from the area of the base affected by the incident and the situation is currently under control.”
The company said there were others injured, but it was unclear how many. Italy said none of its citizens were among the dead.
A rash of attacks and kidnappings in recent weeks by militia groups demanding the release from prison of local leaders have cut Nigeria’s daily exports of 2.5 million by nearly 10 percent and claimed at least 23 lives.
But Adetuyi said there was no immediate evidence that Tuesday’s attack on Agip was linked to that.
“I can’t confirm whether there is any link with militiamen,” Adetuyi said.
Despite the massive amounts of crude pumped from southern Nigeria, much of the region remains in abject poverty and activist groups have been agitating for President Olusegun Obasanjo’s federal government to provide them with a greater share of state oil revenues.
At least 14 other people have been killed in oil-platform attacks and other violence since earlier this year.
Hostages moved deeper into delta
Meanwhile, militants claiming to hold four foreign hostages elsewhere in the Niger Delta said the oil workers are in decent health but had been moved deeper into the region of swamps and creeks after the government failed to meet the captors’ demands.
In a statement e-mailed to The Associated Press, purported representatives of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta — the group that says it is holding the oil workers from the United States, Bulgaria, Britain and Honduras — said Nigeria had not yet met demands for authorities to release two of the region’s leaders from jail.
“Be assured therefore that the hostages in return, will remain our guests,” said the statement, whose authors could not be verified. Demands and news of the hostages’ conditions have repeatedly been sent from the same e-mail address.
The statement said the hostages, who were taken 13 days ago, had been moved further into the Niger Delta, a swampy region of 70,000 square kilometers (27,000 square miles) where much of the petroleum is pumped in Africa’s largest oil exporter.
The hostages “are in good health and have adapted fairly well to the conditions under which the people of the Niger Delta have been kept for the last 48 years,” the statement said.
The militants are demanding the release of Mujahid Dokubo-Asari, a militia leader from the region facing treason charges, and Diepreye Alamieyeseigha, the one-time regional governor detained for corruption.
They allege the two ethnic Ijaw leaders were facing persecution by Obasanjo’s government for advocating more local control of oil resources, a cause they have now vowed to pursue by armed struggle.
While they have threatened more attacks in the south, it was not known if the gunfight at the Agip offices were part of their campaign.
Inhabitants of the impoverished and restive southern region accuse a succession of Nigerian governments and oil companies of cheating them out of the oil wealth produced on their land. The oil companies say they are living up to their end of contracts signed with the government.