Lagos — The onslaught by the Joint Task Force (JTF) against militants in the Niger Delta has entered its 14th day with a new twist: the militants have blown up an oil facility belonging to United States oil giant, Chevron.
Yesterday, JTF confirmed that suspected militants attacked Chevron pipeline in Abiteye in Warri South-west Local Government area of Delta State.
The task force blamed the incident on "Kingsley Opuye and his group of militants" operating mainly in the Delta and Ondo axis of the Niger Delta.
Also confirming the incident, Chevron said one of its pipelines in the Abiteye area of the state was breached on Sunday following militant attack apparently in response to the military offensive by JTF.
In its first official reaction since the escalation of hostilities in the Niger Delta, the oil major said it had shut in 100,000 barrels per day of crude oil as a precautionary measure to ensure the protection of people and the environment.
Claiming responsibility for the attack, however, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), the main militant group in the oil-rich region, said in an email to journalists that it had sabotaged pipelines to flow stations at Alero Creek, Otunana, Abiteye, Makaraba and Dibi feeding a Chevron facility.
The group warned such attacks would continue.
"We will continue our cat-and-mouse tactics with (the military) until oil exports cease completely," it said.
JTF Spokesman, Col. Rabe Abubakar, said while briefing journalists in Warri on the attack that, "While the JTF is struggling to restore peace and normalcy in the Niger Delta region, Kingsley Opuye and his group of militants, have early this morning, blown up Chevron's pipeline at Abiteye.
"This is an act of sabotage which should not be condoned; all those involved in this latest act must be hunted and trapped down".
Chevron's General Manager in charge of Policy, Government and Public Affairs, Mr. Femi Odumabo, said in a statement made available to THISDAY last night that the company was assessing the security situation in the area.
He said: "Chevron Nigeria Limited (CNL) operator of the NNPC/CNL Joint Venture can confirm that one of its pipelines in the Abiteye area of Delta State, Nigeria, was breached at 22:30 hours on Sunday, May 24, 2009.
"In furtherance of its commitment to protecting people and the environment in all its operations, the company has shut in approximately 100,000 barrels of oil per day of production from its swamp operations in Delta State.
"The company is assessing the situation and has reported the incident to relevant government agencies including the Department of Petroleum Resources (DPR), National Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency (NOSDRA), Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC), the Delta State Government and community leaders."
JTF had two weeks ago began its biggest offensive since Niger Delta crisis started around November 2005, bombarding militant camps around Warri from the air and sea and sending three battalions of soldiers to track down fleeing militants believed to be hiding in surrounding communities.
But Sunday's attack by the militants was their first major strike against oil and gas installations since they came under superior gunfire of the JTF some 14 days ago.
THISDAY had reported that in continuation of the crackdown on militants, JTF attacked the Opoye Camp belonging to one of Tompolo's lieutenants, Kingsley Opoye, on Sunday just as the force also secured the release of the last three Filipino hostages kidnapped at the beginning of the military attack on militants.
The rescued Filipinos were, however, said to be undergoing medical treatment at an undisclosed hospital at present.
Two passport speedboats were also reportedly taken from the fleeing militants.
In the meantime, residents of Odi and other communities in Delta and Bayelsa States have begun fleeing the areas following rumours that the military was planning to attack the areas in the wake of their onslaught against militants.
THISDAY gathered that the Presidency, which received news of the near exodus of Odi people to neigbouring communities, has directed appropriate authorities to reassure the people that the peace process in the Niger Delta was deliberate but that indiscriminate attacks on any community in the region was not on the card.
JTF has debunked the allegation, blaming it on the handiwork of some unscrupulous and unpatriotic elements in the region that are out to incense the already charged situation in the region for their selfish interest.
The task force's spokesman said it was a "dangerous rumour" being peddled by hoodlums who might themselves be planning to attack Odi.
"This information is not true as the mandate of the security task force in the Niger Delta is not to bully innocent citizens," Abubakar said, stating that, "We are appealing to members of Odi community to go about their normal businesses as JTF has no plans to attack anybody or group anywhere in the Niger Delta."
He stated that the current operation by the task force was mainly prompted by the "mindless" kidnap of some JTF personnel around the Chanomi Creek of the state, while assuring members of the public "that our waterways have since been opened for both commercial and private legal businesses" with naval unit providing the needed cover or escort.
"However, personal security should always be taken into consideration by reporting any suspicious and strange movements in the waterways to JTF or any security agency for appropriate action," he added.
Also yesterday, Senate Committee on Defence and Army met Service Chiefs behind closed doors to discuss how to halt the lingering military operations in the troubled Niger Delta region.
The meeting, presided over by the committee Chairman, Senator Ibrahim Ida, came amid the decision by the military to extend to Rivers State, its operations aimed at flushing out militants.
Yesterday's two-hour meeting was sequel to a resolution by the Senate that the committee should investigate the military operations that began two weeks ago.
Chairman of the Senate Committee on Niger Delta, Senator James Manager (Delta South), had moved a motion drawing the attention of the Upper House to the military operations in the Niger Delta and asking for a decisive intervention to halt it.
But because of security considerations, the motion was not debated in plenary.
The Upper House had referred it (the motion) to the Committee on Defence and Army for detailed investigation and report back so that the issue could be dealt with in closed session.
The committee was given up to this week to submit the report of its findings.
In a bid to meet up with the deadline, the committee yesterday interacted with the Chief of Defence Staff Paul Dike, Chief of Army Staff Abduraham Dambazzau, Chief of Naval Staff Isaac Ibrahim, and Chief of Air Force Oluseyi Petirin.
THISDAY learnt that the service chiefs briefed the committee on the inevitability of the operations to flush out the militants and why the operation might continue for as long as necessary.
Manager had at plenary raised a point of order to draw the attention of the Upper chamber to the military operation and the sacking of all the communities in the oil-rich Gbaramatu community of the Warri South-west Local Government.
He had reminded the Senate that the mainstay of the Nigerian economy was oil and gas and had warned that the exploration and exploitation would be impossible in the absence of peace and security in the Niger Delta region.
According to him, "It is in the interest of the Niger Delta, just as it is in the interest of the entire nation, for peace and the attendant security to prevail in the Niger Delta for the administration of President Umaru Musa Yar'Adua to carry out his administration's agenda of developing the Niger Delta as well as implementing the other parts of the seven-point agenda."
He had called for Senate intervention to ensure that the operation did not spread beyond the Gbaramatu clan to other parts of Delta State and the Niger Delta region.
But Senate President David Mark had stopped Manager from proceeding with the motion and other senators from discussing it on the grounds of security consideration.