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Nigerian Talks Progress to End Oil Blockade

Officials in Nigeria's oil-rich Niger Delta have started talks with hundreds of angry villagers in an attempt to end a siege of several oil platforms.

Local officials are holding talks in the ethnic Ijaw fishing village of Kula to hear the community's grievances. Wider talks in the capital of Rivers State, Port Harcourt, are to begin Wednesday.

Those talks will involve representatives from the state government, local communities, and the two oil multi-nationals, Royal Dutch Shell and U.S.-based ChevronTexaco.

A spokesman for the Anglo-Dutch multi-national, who wished not to be identified, says the oil companies were caught unprepared.

"The surprising thing is that they did not tell us," he said. "They did not make any formal demand so we do not know what really they want. I think that will come out at the meeting. We will respond in a dialogue. We sit down to talk if their demands are genuine, we meet them, if they are not, everybody goes home. Meanwhile, the facilities are still shut."

Thousands of protesters, including women and children, stormed three oil platforms Sunday, cutting output by about 90,000 barrels a day. They have threatened renewed attacks if production resumes.

The protesters say their fishing waters are being polluted and claim the government and oil companies favor the minority Istekiri ethnic group.

Repeated protests by different ethnic Ijaw groups since last year have disrupted elections, halted production, and driven up oil prices on world markets.

Africa's top oil producer, Nigeria has a daily output of 2.5 million barrels of crude, mainly for export to the United States and Europe. Most of the Niger Delta's inhabitants feel they should get a greater share of the oil wealth, and have not been satisfied with small community programs established by the oil companies.