Nigeria is fighting back against the Niger Delta Avengers, a new militant group that has claimed responsibility for a recent wave of attacks on pipelines in the country's oil-rich south.
The Nigerian army announced that several suspected Avengers members were captured on Monday, though few details about the operation have been made public.
"This is to confirm the arrest of some suspected members of Niger Delta Avengers," Nigerian army spokesman Rabe Abubakar told Reuters, saying the detained individuals had connection with attacks on Chevron oil facilities. He did not say how many people were detained or when they were arrested.
Attacks claimed by by group have forced several multinational oil companies to shut down facilities in the Niger Delta region. In February the group claimed an attack on an undersea pipeline, forcing Shell to shut a terminal that produces 250,000 barrels of oil per day. Last week, the Avengers took credit for blasting a Chevron platform, shutting the Warri and Kaduna refineries. There have been other smaller attacks, and another explosion this week that closed Shell's Bonny Light export programbore the hallmarks of the group.
The Avengers say they are fighting for a greater share of oil profits, an end to pollution in the Delta, and independence for the swampy southern region. Last week, the group warned oil firms to leave before the end of the month, further threatening production in the West African country, which is the largest oil producer in sub-Saharan Africa.
Nigeria has moved in army reinforcements to hunt the militants but British Foreign Minister Philip Hammond said on Saturday President Muhammadu Buhari needed to the deal with the root causes of the conflict because a military confrontation could end in "disaster."
Buhari has extended an amnesty deal signed with militants in 2009 that stepped up funding for the region. Under the deal, more state cash was channeled to the region for job training and militant groups were handed contracts to protect the pipelines they once bombed. But Buhari cut the budget allocated to the plan by about 70 percent and canceled the contracts, citing corruption and mismanagement of funds.
Buhari's cutting of the amnesty plan's budget has also caused widespread resentment in the Delta, as it helps fund job training for the unemployed. Tapping into such anger, the "Avengers" point out that the former military ruler has never visited the Delta, where many roads are pot-holed and some villages are polluted from oil spills.
Buhari has said he will crush the militants, but a wide-scale conflict could stretch security forces already battling a northern rebellion by hardline Sunni Muslim group Boko Haram.
On Thursday the Avengers emailed journalists a statement saying they were fighting for an independent Delta and would step up their attacks unless oil firms left the region within two weeks.
"If at the end of the ultimatum you are still operating, we will blow up all the locations," it said. "It will be bloody. So just shut down your operations and leave."
"To international oil companies, this is just the beginning and you have not seen anything yet. We will make you suffer," it said.
Authorities have no hard facts about the group, such as its size, bases, or leadership, Nigeria-based diplomats say.
'To international oil companies, this is just the beginning and you have not seen anything yet. We will make you suffer.'
Diplomats and security experts say it has shown a level of sophistication not seen since the peak of the 2004-2009 insurgency, which halved Nigeria's oil output. They say it must be getting help from sympathetic oil workers in identifying the pipelines to cause maximum damage.
"It's scary. Their demands are impossible to meet so there will be probably more attacks," said a security expert, asking not to be named.
The group's members describe themselves there as "young, well traveled" and mostly educated in eastern Europe.
The army launched a wide-ranging hunt across the Delta this week, sending gunboats into mosquito-infested creeks and searching villages in the middle of the night. Some residents say such a heavy-handed military approach stokes dissent in the Delta where many complain of poverty despite sitting on much of Nigeria's energy wealth. They say some villagers help militants to hide in the hard-to-access swamps.
"The military came at 12:30am with two gunboats... they went from house to house. Many ran into the bush," said Godspower Gbenekemam, chief of the Gbaramatu area.
"The military stayed on until about 5:30am, during which nobody was able to move out," he said. "We are not part of the people blowing up pipelines. We do not know them so the military should leave our community alone."
The army searched several villages around Gbaramatu because that part of the Delta is home to former militant leader Government Ekpemupolo, better known as Tompolo.
Some officials have linked Tompolo to the "Avengers," pointing to the fact that the attacks began after authorities issued an arrest warrant for Tompolo on graft charges in January.
Tompolo has denied any ties, saying he himself is a victim as the group had asked him to apologize for criticizing it.
Diplomats say some of Tompolo's followers have probably joined the "Avengers," and that the group's ranks could be swelled by an army of unemployed willing to work for anyone.
Some former rebels have denied knowledge of the militants and say they have brought unwanted military attention to the area.
"Niger Delta Avengers are not fighting for the sake of Niger Delta," said Eris Paul, a former leader of the now-defunct Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), which was one of the most powerful militant groups. "We don't know them."
Unidentified gunmen also killed four Nigerian policemen in the last week. The officers were ambushed in the Okobie community while traveling to Yenago, the capital of Bayelsa state.
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