Friday, January 20, 2006

Four Shell Rig Workers May Be Released, MEND Says

A group that is holding four Royal Dutch Shell oil platform workers hostage for the release of a militant and a former governor of Bayelsa State aparently are going to release them unharmed, according to Business Day, a Nigerian business daily.

The Jan. 19 report is now two days old, but there has been no indication any release has occurred.

The article carries a number of new threats from MEND, all of them aimed at ending Nigerian exports of oil until its goals are achieved, the group said. The organization also wants $1.5 billion from Shell to clean up pollution. It will extend its attacks to Chevron, Total and Agip if necessary, MEND said.

Here is the Business Day article:

January 19th, 2006
Kidnapped oil workers may be freed soon

Apparently yielding to appeals, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) yesterday agreed to release the four expatriate oil workers kidnapped, but with a greater resolve to "continue with the destruction of oil operations in the delta".

The ultimate aim of the group is to enforce the Federal Government to acede to their requests: One, the release of Ijaw leaders Mujahid Dokubo-Asari, being held on treason charge and Diepreye Alamieyeseigha, a former state governor accused of embazzlement, and two, that local Ijaw people benefit more from the region’s oil wealth.

The militants said they intended to target all producers in the country in a message where they singled out U.S.-based Chevron.

The MEND which has caused major disruption at Royal Dutch Shell (RDSa.L: Quote, Profile, Research) and is holding four foreign oil workers hostage, said it has also attacked installations run by France's Total and Italy's Agip, a unit of ENI.

"We have decided not to limit our attacks to Shell oil as our ultimate aim is to prevent Nigeria from exporting oil," the militant group said in an email statement to Reuters.

So far, Shell is the only major operator to have said it suffered at the hands of the militants, who demand greater control over the delta's enormous oil wealth for the impoverished local people.

"The reports of attacks on Agip and Total flow stations are correct," the group said. "We will attack all oil companies including Chevron facilities." Spokesmen for the French and Italian companies in Nigeria dismissed the statement.

Analysts say the violence is part of growing political rivalry between the regions in Nigeria, Africa's most populous nation, ahead of 2007 presidential elections.

Widening attacks would escalate the ethnic group's campaign against oil pipelines, platforms and workers in the world's eighth largest oil exporter.

Agip spokesman Akin Aruwajoye said: "We have not been attacked." Total's Fred Ohwahwa said: "Nothing has happened to any of our facilities." Oil prices climbed to their highest level in almost four months yesterday as the group's threats exacerbated the markets' concerns about the OPEC cartel's capacity to meet demand. Nigeria is a leading OPEC member.

US crude oil climbed as far as $66.91 a barrel, the highest since September 30, and was up 54 cents at $66.85 at 1230 GMT. London Brent crude was up 45 cents at $65.35.

Shell, the largest producer of oil in Nigeria's delta, said it was keeping 221,000 barrels a day of production shut, roughly 10 percent of the West African country's output.

Shell evacuated 330 workers from four oil platforms after a militant attack on Sunday which killed four soldiers. It said in a statement it was reviewing its staff deployment, after the militants repeated threats to target oil employees.

"Pipelines, loading points, export tankers, tank farms, refined petroleum depots, landing strips and residences of employees of these companies can expect to be attacked," the group said. "We know where they live, shop and where the children go to school." Wednesday sees the expiry of a 48-hour deadline set on Monday by the hostage-takers for their demands to be met. The four hostages are an American, a Briton, a Bulgarian and a Honduran.

The group demands local control of the Niger Delta's oil wealth, payment of $1.5 billion by Shell to the Bayelsa State government to compensate for pollution, and the release of three men including two ethnic Ijaw leaders.

Meanwhile, U.S. oil giant ExxonMobil dismissed a report that loadings at two major Nigerian oil terminals, which export almost a quarter of the country's oil, were suspended because of fears of an attack.

"Producing operations are continuing at all facilities and loadings are taking place within normal operational variants," said a statement from the company issued late on Tuesday.

Under standard oil export contracts exporters are allowed a window of several days to load tankers and so brief suspensions in loadings do not prevent them from meeting obligations.

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