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Relative Calm Returns to Niger Delta - 2003-08-21

A relative calm has returned to Nigeria's oil-rich Niger Delta, but only with the deployment of hundreds of soldiers. More than 30 have died in the latest territorial dispute.

Hundreds of troops have been sent to the Niger Delta area in a bid to keep fighting communities apart. A nighttime curfew has also been implemented.

The presence of the troops appears to have brought an end to the fighting for the time being, but the issues at the center of the clashes still have not been resolved.

Two communities, the Itsekiris and the Ijaws, are involved in a long-standing dispute over land rights in the oil rich delta.

Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo has appealed to elements within the two communities not to use the crisis as a cover for carrying out illegal siphoning of oil from pipelines. Analysts estimate that 100,000 barrels of oil are lost each day to illegal siphoning and vandalism. It has proven to be a lucrative trade for local gangs.

State Governor James Ibori has traveled to the region to try to mediate a deal between the two sides.

Meanwhile, aid workers in the area estimate that 3,000 residents have been displaced by the fighting. Businesses, including the offices of oil companies in the state capital of Warri, remain closed.

Shell's outgoing managing director, Ron Van de Berg, was quoted in local newspapers Wednesday as estimating that 300,000 barrels of crude oil are not being produced as a direct result of the troubles in the Niger Delta. This is in addition to losses from the illegal siphoning.

Last March, ethnic clashes in the delta led to dozens of deaths and forced multinational oil giants to curtail operations in the area. Operations had resumed, but this latest bout of unrest once again casts a shadow over Nigeria's oil industry.