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Niger Delta Oil Installations Plan to Reopen, Local Residents Allege Abuse

Nigeria's government is bolstering security for oil companies in the Niger Delta, as firms plan to resume regular operations following a week of threats by local militants. But federal troops brought in to pacify the volatile area are now being accused of abusing local residents.

Federal troops and sailors have set up machine gun nests on the Idama oil platform in Nigeria's oil-rich Niger Delta, after armed militants shut it down last week.

U.S.-based oil company Chevron, which operates the Idama facility, said it would be ready to reopen the platform, as well as another in Robertkiri, as soon as it was safe to do so.

Fighters from the Niger Delta People's Volunteer Force caused oil companies to scale back their operations in the volatile region last week, after issuing threats of violence and demanding the release of their jailed leader.

The group backed down from threats to begin destroying oil facilities Saturday, after their leader, Mujahid Dokubo-Asari, pleaded, through the media, for calm. Mr. Asari is in custody in Abuja, while treason charges stemming from an earlier newspaper interview are prepared against him.

Nigeria's federal government quickly bolstered security in and around the Niger Delta's main city, Port Harcourt, when the threats of violence were first issued.

But some local residents say the federal troops also began committing human rights abuses.

Witnesses from a village near the attacked Idama Chevron facility say soldiers arrived there looking for rifles taken when militants disarmed the platform's security detail. They say soldiers beat them with rifle butts and whipped them. Many village residents, they say, fled in fear.

Nigerian army officials were not available for comment. Rivers State government officials said the weapons taken by the militants had been recovered.

Ulrika Sandberg, a Nigeria specialist for the London-based human rights advocacy group, Amnesty International, says troops in the delta region are regularly accused of committing gross abuses.

"We have seen how in some of these cases, the federal troops have actually used disproportionate force, beating people, kicking people, and, in some cases, using tear gas. So, the record of the security forces in the Niger Delta is not very good, in terms of human rights violations," Ulrika Sandberg said.

An economic rights researcher for Amnesty, Salil Tripathi, says private security personnel employed by oil companies are not allowed to carry weapons. So, federal troops handle the bulk of security in the Niger Delta. Mr. Tripathi says the situation sometimes causes problems, when the army views the local population as a threat to oil operations.

"The governments are also part owners of these companies," said Mr. Tripathi. "The Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation has a stake in every operation. Given that, some commanders would tell us that, 'we are guarding our strategic national assets," he said.

Mr. Tripathi says British and American oil firms in the delta, including Chevron, have signed a protocol, known as the Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights. The international agreement is meant to balance companies' need for security with the necessity to protect local populations against rights abuses.

Witnesses say the federal soldiers who allegedly attacked the villagers near Idama arrived in Chevron company boats. Chevron officials were not reachable for this report.

Arguments over the distribution of oil revenues and anger over widespread environmental destruction in the Niger Delta have long fueled clashes between federal troops and local militias. Despite its abundant natural resources, the region is marked by widespread poverty.