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Nigerian Troops Intervene In Warri Ethnic Clashes - 2003-08-20

Nigeria has ordered troops into the town of Warri in Delta state following violent clashes between ethnic Ijaws and Itsekeris. The fighting in the town has killed dozens and prompted thousands more to flee. Dino Mahtani reports from Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

A special military task force made up of army, navy, and airforce units was ordered into Warri, where fighting between heavily armed militant Ijaw and Itsekeri youth militias has been taking place over the past few days.

Some 900 policemen from Nigeria's Mobile Police Unit, the country's elite police force, commonly referred to by Nigerians as "Kill-and-Go," are also expected in the town to restore order.

Warri is in the heart of the Niger Delta, where most of the country's crude oil is produced. Nigeria has an oil output of about two-million barrels a day and produces some of the highest quality oil on international markets.

Violence broke out in Warri last Friday when an Itsekeri village was attacked by militant Ijaw youths. The Ijaw are the majority tribe in the Niger Delta, but feel they have been sidelined by the government of President Olusegun Obasanjo, which they say favors the minority Itsekeris as a way of dominating the oil resources.

Both ethnic factions have youth militia who are armed and manipulated by various political players at the national level.

The death count in Warri is not known. The Red Cross is waiting for the military units to bring order to the town before they start counting the bodies. Thousands of people are believed to have fled the town in fear of further attacks.

The town has become relatively calm since soldiers began patrolling, but occasional bursts of gunfire can still be heard from different sections.

Fighting between Ijaws and Itsekeris also broke out in March. Dozens of people were killed and the major oil companies in the region, Shell and Chevron Texaco, had to shut down key operations. Nigeria is the world's eighth-largest oil exporter, and the March fighting led to a 40-percent drop in its oil output, or roughly 800-thousand barrels a day.