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March 22, 2003
 
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TotalFinaElf Evacuates Tense Nigeria Oilfield

Reuters


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By Daniel Balint-Kurti

WARRI, Nigeria (Reuters) - TotalFinaElf shut its oil production facilities in Nigeria's western delta and evacuated workers on Saturday because of spiraling violence that has left dozens of people dead, company officials said.

A Reuters correspondent saw a helicopter land in the oil city of Warri, bringing the first group of workers fleeing tribal fighting in oilfields around the Escravos export terminal.

The group was accompanied by armed soldiers.

The officials said the helicopters were ferrying frightened workers from various TotalFinaElf facilities including the Opumami tank farm, the French oil firm's most important facility in the Obodo district where it produces 7,500 barrels per day of crude.

But there was no immediate official confirmation to reports that militants had set fire to part of the tank farm.

"We are still getting reports from the area. We are following the situation," a TotalFinaElf official said in Lagos.

Scores of people, including 10 soldiers quelling the unrest, have died in the past week.

The surge in ethnic conflict in the Nigerian delta has forced oil majors Shell and ChevronTexaco to shut down their operations, with the loss of a total 315,000 bpd of crude, or 16 percent of Nigeria's output.

"We decided to shut our production and evacuate the area because of the deteriorating situation," the TotalFinaElf official added.

The Niger Delta, which accounts for most of Nigeria's crude output of just over two million bpd, has been on the boil for years, with oil multinationals getting caught in a deadly struggle for oil benefits by local ethnic groups.

FIGHTING DRAGS IN ARMY

The latest flare-up has involved much violence between ethnic Itsekiris and Ijaws, who are spearheading a campaign in the delta for a greater share of Nigeria's oil wealth.

But it has also dragged in the army, sent in to quell the unrest. The increasingly violent campaign has added to nationwide political unrest threatening the country's national elections next month.

Representatives of the Ijaws, who have been battling the army since Thursday, raised their death toll to 58 from 14, all allegedly killed in army raids on villages.

Itsekiri spokesman Austin Oboroegbeyi said at least 45 had died in attacks on villages of his ethnic group since Wednesday by Ijaw warriors using what he called "sophisticated firearms."

The attacks included an assault on a village near Elf's Opumami tank farm on Saturday morning.

Sources said tension was high at ChevronTexaco's key Escravos export terminal, where they said the army had established a base.

Isaac Bojosan, a resident from the area who was evacuated by the firm's helicopters on Saturday, estimated that 6,000 to 7,000 workers and local residents were still taking refuge in the terminal when he left on Saturday.

"They are scattered all over the place: sleeping on the floor, sleeping on top of pipes," he said.

Bojosan said the evacuation had been slowed by fear of attacks from Ijaws, whom he said were armed with machineguns, semi-automatic rifles and rocket-propelled grenade launchers.

Copyright 2003 Reuters News Service. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

 
 
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