The main militant group in Nigeria's southern oil region declared a state of war Sunday after two days of clashes with government forces, launching reprisal raids and raising the specter of more conflict in Africa's biggest oil producer.
The group warned international oil companies to avoid the region or take “a foolhardy risk of attack.”
The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta has mostly focused on hobbling Nigeria's oil industry since it emerged nearly three years ago, bombing pipelines in hopes of forcing the federal government to send more money to the impoverished oil-producing south.
But a military task force involving marine, land and air forces have stepped up their anti-militant activities in recent weeks.
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On Sunday, militants said they attacked soldiers protecting sites run by Chevron Corp. and Royal Dutch Shell – payback for a rare ground battle Saturday when the armed forces attacked a militant base camp.
“Following a previous warning that any attack on our positions will be tantamount to a declaration of an oil war, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta has declared an oil war,” said a statement from the group, known by its acronym MEND.
It was unclear whether the declaration would have any real effect in the Niger Delta.
The loose alliance of militant and criminal gangs steals Nigerian oil for sale overseas. Most fighting is focused on the oil industry, but a full-scale conflict with the military could leave the country's oil-pumping infrastructure in tatters, while jeopardizing the militants' own lucrative oil trade.