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New Nigerian President Inherits Turbulent Niger Delta


Newly instated Nigerian President Umaru Yar'Adua will face as one of his first challenges controlling the unruly and lawless Niger Delta. Kidnappings of foreigners have escalated as armed militants and average citizens decry the persistence of rampant poverty in a region teeming with oil wealth. Kari Barber reports from the Niger Delta.

Two Indian petrochemical workers were abducted at gunpoint from their apartment. Security guards say an armed group fired on the building in the early hours of the morning and took the two men captive. "They were holding ammunition that was more than the security's."

The guard on duty was armed with a baton. Hostages are usually held until a ransom is paid.

A militant group called The Niger Delta Vigilantes struts through the streets of Okrika Island. The group has become a major militant force fighting for better compensation for the region from the government and oil companies. They say they wish peaceful means were an option.

Some militant groups choose to keep a low profile. Speaking from an upstairs safe house, Commander Marcus Appolos with the Iijaw Youth Council says violence has increased because people in the Niger Delta feel the government is ignoring their needs while reaping the financial benefits of the region's oil.

"The threat of the Niger Delta was not like this [before], but today every little child is aware of fighting for freedom. So now even unborn children are happy to die for justice."

A maze of winding waterways offers hideouts for militant bases, accessible only by speedboat. Small fishing villages like this are caught in the crossfire of gang-like warfare as militant groups battle for territory. Fishermen here say they have lost their livelihood.

One such fisherman is Samuel Johnson, who says, "All of my things are lost. My house is burned. My canoe, my net is finished. I am empty."

Meanwhile, a pipeline outside the village moves oil underneath the waterways. One of the complaints of militant groups and citizens is that oil production has degraded their environment. Gas flares are common.

In the village of Ikarama in the southern state of Bayelsa people live by farming and fishing.

But they say life has become more difficult since oil from a line belonging to Dutch conglomerate Shell began seeping to the surface, spilling across a field and entering the creeks and swamps. Engineer Lambert Miebi says the environment is not safe. "We are not in a safe environment. We feed from this soil and also we fish from these swamps, we have so many ponds around. We fish from them and they are all polluted."

Oil companies, including Shell, were contacted for this report but representatives say they are too busy dealing with attacks and hostage situations to speak to the media.

Residents say another oil company built a footbridge for them as a sign of good relations. But, they say now the bridge is falling apart.

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