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Nigeria Militant Leader Warns Foreign Oil Workers to Leave Amid Fresh Violence

By Osmond Chidi, AP
WARRI, Nigeria (AP) - A Nigerian militant leader reportedly warned foreign oil workers out of the country's troubled delta by midnight Friday as an army helicopter gunship exchanged fire with militants in the latest violence to strike the region.

The British Broadcasting Corp. reported militant commander Godswill Tamuno had announced his Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta was declaring "total war" on foreign oil interests and warned them to leave the oil-rich southern delta by midnight.

The same group has issued similar threats for more than a month and claimed responsibility for attacking two pipelines and abducting four foreign oil workers who were later released.

Meanwhile, an army helicopter gunship patrolling the delta Friday exchanged fire with armed militants, the military said. No casualties were reported.

Maj. Said Hammed, a spokesman for a joint task force charged with maintaining security in the delta, said the helicopter returned fire after it was shot at by armed men protecting a barge stealing crude oil from a pipeline. He gave no other details.

In an e-mailed statement, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta said the helicopter had carried out attacks on ethnic Ijaw communities, and militants responded with "rockets and machine gunfire."

"We cannot at this point be certain if it was hit," the militant statement said.

On Wednesday, the army had said it attacked eight barges being used by smugglers to steal crude oil from pipelines. Militants had portrayed the earlier incident as an attack on Ijaw communities by military helicopters using an airstrip in the oil port city of Warri operated by Royal Dutch Shell. They threatened to target such aircraft.

Officials of Shell, the biggest foreign oil company in Nigeria accounting for a little under half of the country's daily exports of 2.5 million barrels, were not immediately available for comment.

The militant group says it is fighting for local control of oil wealth in the impoverished region and claims responsibility for a recent rash of attacks on oil operations and the taking foreign hostages,

Nigerian security agencies estimate that as much as 10 percent of the country's oil is sometimes stolen by criminal gangs for sale to vessels offshore, providing a source of funds for arms used by gangs responsible for worsening violence in the oil region.

Nigeria is Africa's leading oil producer and the fifth-biggest source of U.S. oil imports