| A Nigerian soldier stands guard at an oil station in the western Niger Delta. (AFP)
Lagos, Sept. 28 (Reuters): Nigerian rebels fighting for sovereignty of the oil-producing Niger delta told oil companies in the world's seventh largest exporter to shut production before they begin an 'all-out war' on October 1.
The Niger Delta People's Volunteer Force, in a communique issued late yesterday after a meeting of its central command, also advised all foreigners to leave the delta, according to the group's leader Mujahid Dokubo-Asari. The delta pumps all of Nigeria's 2.3 million barrels per day output.
The communique accused Royal Dutch Shell Group, Nigeria's largest oil producer, and Italy's Agip, a unit of ENI, of 'collaboration with the Nigerian state in acts of genocide against our people'.
Asari said after the meeting his group would not attack oil pipelines because it did not want to pollute the delta environment, but foreign oil workers would be targeted from October 1. The violence has so far had a minimal effect on oil supply, but companies fear a repeat of last year's Ijaw rebellion which forced them briefly to shut 40 per cent of production.
Shell Petroleum Development Co. (SPDC) said it had taken additional measures to protect its staff and that output was beginning to be affected. 'SPDC is taking additional precautionary measures for the safety of staff,' Shell said in a statement, adding that one field producing 28,000 barrels per day had been shut because it was unable to get staff there to rectify a technical problem.
SPDC, a unit of Royal Dutch Shell Group, last week evacuated more than 200 staff from two oilfields.
In New York, crude oil futures jumped 36 cents in electronic trading to the $50 a barrel level, the highest in the 21 years oil futures have traded on the exchange.
'Operation Locust Feast will commence on October 1 marking the 44 years of dubious independence of the Nigerian state,' Asari quoted the communique from the group as saying. The offensive is aimed at escalating the conflict, currently focused around the regional capital Port Harcourt, to the whole delta region, Asari said.
It will be sustained until the government agrees to negotiate self-determination for the Ijaw people, who form a majority in the delta, he added. The meeting nominated the Ijaw National Congress as the mediator for any talks with government.
Many inhabitants of the vast area of mangrove swamps and creeks see Asari as a local hero, but the government describes him as a gangster fighting for control of smuggling routes. Asari said the Niger Delta People's Volunteer Force would take no responsibility for any harm to foreign nationals.