The Nigerian military says it intercepted 22 barges of stolen crude oil in the creeks of the Niger Delta in what it said was its most successful operation for months against the stealing of crude in the Niger Delta.
The Joint Task Force protecting oil personnel and facilities in the Niger Delta says its naval vessel discovered the barges during a routine patrol of the creeks in Delta state.
Officials say that millions of dollars are lost daily in crude oil stolen in the Niger Delta, home to Nigeria's multi-billion-dollar oil and gas industry. The gunmen also regularly carry out kidnappings and robberies.
A Niger Delta analyst, Tony Uranta, says the violent insurgency in the Niger Delta is driven by the lucrative oil smuggling business, known locally as bunkering.
"Bunkering is a major problem in this region," he said. "You have to understand that the proceeds of bunkering are used to purchase arms. And as we know, the illegal arm trafficking is used to foster the insecurity in the region. So, there are three legs on which the crisis of the Niger Delta have stood on in the last five years. The legs of political banditry, illegal small arms trafficking and oil theft."
Uranta says the security forces have done very little to halt oil theft in the Niger Delta.
"The fact remains that whatever they are doing is now is too little too late, because the truth remains that there are millions of barrels of oil being stolen from the region regularly and this theft could not be going on without the knowledge and or connivance of the security forces," he said. "Maybe they are waking up to their responsibilities. But talking about seizing 22 barges is a small drop in the ocean."
Crude oil tapped by gangs in the oil-rich Niger Delta is sold to vessels waiting offshore for onward shipment to the global market.
President Umaru Yar'Adua has called for international action to stop the illegal oil trade. Militants say the stealing of oil is a legitimate aspect of the struggle for a greater share of the region's resources.
Hundreds of both local and foreign oil workers have been kidnapped in the area while a string of attacks have targeted oil installations.