YENAGOA, Nigeria (Reuters) - Nigeria’s military threatened on Saturday to carry out raids against what it said were camps of criminal gangs in the creeks of the oil-producing Niger Delta, and told civilians in the vicinity to leave.
Any major offensive by the armed forces would be the first in the Niger Delta, the heartland of the OPEC member’s energy industry, since an amnesty programme brokered by President Goodluck Jonathan began in August 2009.
Seven expatriate workers were kidnapped from an oil rig off the Niger Delta almost a week ago, while the home of President Goodluck Jonathan’s main adviser on the region was attacked with explosives late on Thursday.
“We have observed with concern some criminal acts within the past few days by some people claiming to be militants ... Many of these criminals are known to be hiding in camps within the creeks of the Niger Delta,” Chief of Defence Staff Oluseyi Petinrin said in a statement.
“These camps will no longer be tolerated. To avoid any collateral damage, we are seizing this opportunity to instruct all law-abiding citizens who live around the vicinity of these camps to leave immediately,” the statement said.
The military taskforce in the Niger Delta (JTF) said one camp in Bayelsa, one of the three main oil-producing states, was raided on Friday. Officials said there was an exchange of gunfire, and weapons and maps of oil facilities were seized.
The Niger Delta had been hit by years of militant attacks on oil infrastructure prior to the amnesty. At its peak, the unrest prevented Nigeria from pumping much above two thirds of its 3 million barrels per day (bpd) oil production capacity and cost it an estimated $1 billion a month in lost revenues.
A resurgence in violence would be an embarrassment for Jonathan, the first Nigerian head of state from the region who faces a tough battle in presidential elections due next April.
The amnesty, considered a main achievement of the current administration, brought more than a year without major unrest.
Thousands of gunmen laid down weapons, but the militants were always highly factionalised and new field commanders have started to emerge, security experts say.
“There are ex-militants who, after accepting the amnesty and benefiting from the goodwill of the government, have returned to criminality,” JTF Commander Charles Omoregie said.
“They have been advised to retrace their steps or face the full weight of the law.”
The main militant group, the Movement of the Emancipation for the Niger Delta (MEND), kidnapped seven foreign crew members from an Afren oil rig on Sunday, including two Americans, two Frenchmen, two Indonesians and one Canadian.
The group said on Friday the seven men were in good health but would be in its custody “for a while.”
It said the two Americans and one of the Frenchmen were employees of Swiss-based Transocean, the second Frenchman worked for France’s Sodexo, the Indonesians worked for Century Energy Ltd and the Canadian worked for local firm Petroleum Projects International (PPI).
MEND also claimed responsibility for twin car bombs near an independence day parade in Abuja on October 1 which killed at least 10 people, the group’s first attack in the capital.
The government has insisted the amnesty is still on track.
But there have been other attacks in recent days, including one in Bayelsa state on the home of Timi Alaibe, Jonathan’s special adviser on the region responsible for implementing the amnesty. Aides said Alaibe was not home at the time.
Police in Bayelsa also said on Wednesday they had arrested two men who were trying to rig a car with explosives at a bus station in the state capital Yenagoa. They said the man had admitted carrying out previous attacks for MEND.
Saboteurs also attacked an Agip oil pipeline two weeks ago in Bayelsa, shutting 4,000 barrels per day (bpd) of oil production.
Additional reporting by Camillus Eboh in Abuja; Writing by Nick Tattersall