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Nigerian military acts to clear oil rich Delta of militants
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09:43, May 18, 2009

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Fierce fighting eased after the Nigerian military claimed a major victory on Saturday in the oil rich Niger Delta region in the West African country's southeast Delta State.

After three days of a military offensive code-named Operation Restore Hope, the Nigerian Joint Task Force overran Camp 5, the stronghold of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), a major headache for both government and foreign oil companies in the region.

The military said it had rescued nine Filipinos and four Nigerians taken hostage alongside their oil vessel MV Spirit, one of the two ships seized by MEND off the coast on Wednesday night.

More than 20 crew members were on board the MV Spirit when the tanker was hijacked by the largest militant group in the region, which until Friday admitted holding 15 Filipinos in its custody.

There were conflicting reports about the fate of the Filipinos yet to be found, with the government saying none of them had been hurt in the fight and MEND declaring the killing of one in the crossfire.

With the fall of Camp 5, MEND is apparently in a disarray from an "all-out war" it declared on Friday and the Saturday deadline for foreign companies to leave.

But lingering fear is deep-rooted in a region where poverty leaves a large number of youths without work and MEND's claim for the local control of resources taking the heart of population, analysts say.

Against the same backdrop of poverty and rich oil resources which had yielded billions of U.S. dollars in decades, MEND burst onto the scene in January 2006 and quickly developed into a dominating militant group.

More than 200 foreign workers have been kidnapped over the past three years with the hostage-taking turning into a lucrative business -- most have been released unharmed after a ransom was paid.

Mike Okiro, the inspector general of the Nigeria Police Force, accused MEND of using hostage-taking as a money-making tool, holding it responsible for abducting most of the 128 people reported in 2008.

He told reporters last month that 126 of the hostages were released after huge sums of money were paid, one was recovered dead and one had his four fingers chopped off by captors.

The government had long planned a crackdown on MEND, only to take action recently after armed gangs ambushed security operatives, attacked foreign vessels and imposed an evacuation deadline on foreign firms.

The anti-MEND operation is part of a pledge offered by President Umaru Yar'Adua, who took office in May 2007. The president vowed to tackle both poverty and crime in the Niger Delta, one of the world's largest wetlands and home to Africa's biggest oil and gas industry.

While advances are being made on the military front, the economic development needs to be seen in the oil rich delta to knock out the root cause of crime, which, in addition to piracy and kidnappings, includes blowing up pipelines and bunkering on oil pipelines, local media said, citing analysts.

Attacks and bunkering in the Niger Delta have cut Nigeria's output by around a fifth from 2.4 million barrels per day recorded before 2006.

Pipelines are regularly vandalized by impoverished residents, who risk their lives to siphon off fuel.


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