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Unidentified gunmen have stormed the offices of Italian oil company Agip in Port Harcourt, southern Nigeria.

At least nine people were killed in the assault. It is reported that seven of the dead were policemen and two were civilians working at the complex.

The gunmen attacked the riverside offices on speedboats and made their escape in the same way, having stolen a large amount of money, witnesses said.

It is the latest in a string of attacks on oil companies in the Niger Delta.

Anxious wait

According to a government official who spoke to the Reuters news agency on condition of anonymity, a group of about 30 men, wielding AK-47 assault rifles, attacked the facility by speedboat.

"There was a massive attack on the Agip offices in Port Harcourt," the official said.

After a lengthy gunfight with police, the assailants robbed a bank on the premises and safely made good their escape, without losing any members of their group.

Local resident Damka Pueba arrived at the scene shortly after the shooting stopped.

She described scenes of chaos to the BBC news website. Staff were fleeing the building as local police ran inside and hundreds of anxious relatives gathered in hope of news about their loved ones.

"A crowd of about 800 people had gathered at the scene. Many of them were crying," she said.

A spokesman for Agip confirmed that there had been an "incident" at the complex, but gave no further details.

Hostage fears

The oil company's headquarters in Port Harcourt are in a complex of buildings called the Agip Industrial Area, in the Mgboshimini area of the city.

It comprises a large complex of offices, workshops and jetties run by the company.

Eni, the Italian energy giant which owns Agip, has been operating in Nigeria since 1962.

Locals complain they do not get an adequate share of the profits

In 2004, Eni accounted for approximately 10% of oil and gas production in Nigeria.

It is unclear if robbery was the sole motive for this latest attack. It comes just days after militants who have kidnapped four foreign oil workers and attacked a Shell oil platform said they were preparing to carry out more raids.

The rebel group, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, says it wants a share of the Niger Delta region's enormous oil wealth, and is demanding the release of two local Ijaw leaders.

The foreign hostages have been captive for more than two weeks and kidnappers say one of the men, an American, is very ill.

Oil workers' unions in Nigeria have threatened to withdraw members from the main oil-producing region unless the government moves to improve security.

The instability has led to a 10% fall in Nigeria's oil production. The country is Africa's leading oil exporter and the fifth-biggest source of US oil imports, but despite its wealth, many Nigerians live in abject poverty.

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WARRI, Nigeria (Reuters) -- Villagers fled Nigeria's lawless delta on Wednesday amid fears of military reprisals after a wave of attacks on foreign oil companies by ethnic Ijaw militia.

The army deployed more troops to key installations and oil companies tightened security around their offices a day after heavily armed men stormed the headquarters of Italian oil firm Agip, robbing a bank on the premises and killing eight policemen and one civilian.

"There are soldiers everywhere, and I don't want my three girls in the firing line," said Return Powei, from the remote village of Ogbotobo. "Our youths run into the forest when they hear the soldiers are coming. Everyone is moving out of Ogbotobo."

It was not clear if the attack on Agip, a unit of Italy's ENI, was the work of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, whose five-week campaign of sabotage and kidnapping has helped push world oil prices to four-month highs. (Details on Agip attack)

The movement pledged on Wednesday to make Royal Dutch Shell suffer, unless it pays $1.5 billion to delta villages in compensation for decades of oil pollution.

The government has set up a committee to negotiate the release of four foreign oil workers -- an American, Briton, Bulgarian and Honduran -- kidnapped from a Shell oilfield on January 11.

"In principle, we have assurances the hostages will be released ... We believe it will be this week," said a spokesman for state of Bayelsa, one of six delta states. "There will be no military reprisals."

However, diplomats say the government has given similar messages every day since the abduction and the militants have consistently denied being in any talks.

"The hostages are in good health ... and are going nowhere for as long as our demands are not met," said the group, which also demands the release of two imprisoned Ijaw leaders and more local control over the delta's huge oil wealth.

Military revenge?
At the riverside in the delta city of Warri, villagers from outlying villages arrived in boats packed with household possessions, fearing military reprisals for the killing of a dozen soldiers on a Shell oil platform last week.

Shell has already withdrawn 500 staff and cut its output by 221,000 barrels a day, or one tenth of Nigerian exports.

Hundreds of contractors have also fled as the military deploys extra troops to platforms and shipping terminals across the vast region of mangrove swamps and tidal creeks.

Oil unions have threatened to pull out from the delta, which produces almost all Nigeria's 2.4 million barrels a day, if security deteriorates further.

"There is palpable fear in the air that another Odi is in the making," said ThisDay newspaper on Wednesday. Rights groups say the 1999 raid by troops killed hundreds in the delta village of Odi to avenge the killing of 12 policemen.

The militants vowed to respond in kind to any military reprisals and again warned foreigners to leave the delta. Nigeria's secret service released three men detained this week for alleged links to the kidnappers. The militants had distanced themselves from them, saying they were profiteers.

"These people were arrested for being unable to provide the hostages after they were paid," the militants said. "The hostages were not being held for money."

The captives will be freed only in return for the release of militia chief Mujahid Dukubo-Asari and former Bayelsa state governor Diepreye Alamieyeseigha, who was impeached for money laundering last month, the group said.
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
Bodies burned in open after Nigeria riots kill 146
By George Esiri 2 hours, 2 minutes ago

ONITSHA, Nigeria (Reuters) - Christian youths burned the corpses of Muslims on Thursday on the streets of Onitsha in southeastern Nigeria, the city worst hit by religious riots that have killed at least 146 people across the country in five days.


Christian mobs, seeking revenge for the killings of Christians in the north, attacked Muslims with machetes, set fire to them, destroyed their houses and torched mosques in two days of violence in Onitsha, where 93 people died.

"We are very happy that this thing is happening so that the north will learn their lesson," said Anthony Umai, a motorcycle taxi rider, standing close to where Christian youths had piled up the corpses of 10 Muslims and were burning them.

Dozens more corpses had been thrown into the back of pick-up trucks by security services overnight, residents said.

Uncertainty over Nigeria's political future is aggravating regional, ethnic and religious rivalries in Africa's most populous nation and top oil exporter.

Elections are due next year and many Nigerians believe President Olusegun Obasanjo and some state governors will try to stay on after eight years in power. The prospect angers those who want their own ethnic or regional blocs to have their turn.

Militants in the oil-producing Niger Delta have waged a three-month campaign of attacks and kidnappings, which has cut exports and driven up world oil prices. One of their demands is greater control over their region and its resources.

There was no fighting in Onitsha on Thursday but Emeka Umeh, of human rights group the Civil Liberties Organization, called it "the peace of the graveyard."

Some charred corpses were still lying on the streets and hundreds of Muslim men, women and children fled the city crammed into open-top trucks for fear of more killings. Thousands more were hiding in army barracks and police stations.

Umeh said most of the bodies his group counted were Hausa, but some Ibo were killed too. The Hausa are the main ethnic group in northern Nigeria and most are Muslim, while the Ibo are dominant in the southeast and almost all are Christian.


It is impossible to verify the exact number of deaths but Red Cross figures from all the different cities give a toll of 146. Local authorities decline to give death tolls.

In northern Maiduguri, where the Christian Association of Nigeria says 50 Christians were killed in a weekend riot that began as a protest against cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad, tensions were high during several Christian funeral masses.

The Red Cross said at least 21 people died in Maiduguri and 9,000 were driven from their homes.

A crowd of Christian youths broke away from the burial of one of the victims, a Catholic priest, and ran shouting through the streets before police dispersed them.

At the funeral of 13 children from two families who were burned in their houses, mourners wailed as police stood by.

News of the Maiduguri killings set off the bloodletting in Onitsha, and tit-for-tat violence spread on Wednesday to Enugu, another southeastern city, where seven people were killed.

Nigeria's 140 million people are divided about equally between Muslims in the north and Christians in the south, but sizeable religious minorities live in both regions.

Thousands of people have been killed in religious violence since the restoration of democracy in 1999. Killings in one part of the country often spark reprisals elsewhere.

The triggers for riots that killed at least at least 46 people, mostly Christians, in northern Maiduguri, Bauchi and Katsina, were different, but religious and secular leaders have linked them to political tensions.

In Bauchi, an alleged blasphemy started the trouble, while in Katsina it was a constitutional review that many see as an attempt to keep Obasanjo in power.

The constitution bars Obasanjo, a Christian from the southwest, from seeking a third term in 2007 and he says he will uphold the charter. But he has declined to comment on a powerful movement to amend the constitution to allow him to stay.

Maiduguri and Katsina are both hosting public hearings on constitutional reform this week which many Nigerians believe are geared toward furthering the so-called third term agenda.

(Additional reporting by Estelle Shirbon in Abuja, Ibrahim Mshelizza in Maiduguri and Tume Ahemba in Lagos)

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