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Heavy Security in Port Harcourt, as Nigerian Militants Step-up Attacks

The ongoing violence in Nigeria's Niger Delta region has had a major effect on life in the main commercial city of Port Harcourt. Reporter Chinedu Offor is there and discussed the situation with English to Africa Service's Joe De Capua.

"You can say the city of Port Harcourt is on edge, but it's also a city on lockdown. I drove into Port Harcourt from the neighboring state of Imo. It's a distance of about an hour and 30 minutes by road and I counted no less than 20 checkpoints manned by heavily armed police and troops. Within the city of Port Harcourt itself there are sandbags protecting government installations. There are troops on pickup trucks with machine guns. There are armored personnel carriers deployed at strategic parts of the city. People are moving around, but there's some kind of tense situation. It's a city on edge," he says.

Last week, a statement from a faction of the militant group MEND, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, announced it supported a government plan to create an agency to oversee development in the Delta region. However, other factions of MEND opposed the plan and violence erupted over the weekend. Offor explains how the various factions of MEND evolved.

"Originally, MEND was part of the Niger Delta People's Volunteer Force, led by a militant leader, Mujahid Asari-Dokubo. But when he was arrested and began consultations and discussions with the government, other officials of that group decided to break away and form MEND. Right now, the same process is repeating itself. There are some elements within MEND that support discussions and consultations with the government. Those elements support the current vice-president of Nigeria, Jonathan Goodluck, who is from the Niger Delta. So the group is split into several factions. There are those who are in the creeks fighting against the government and against the vice-president, and there are those who support the vice-president…. Those are the ones who have indicated interest in the peace process," he says.

Offor says the latest fight has dealt a blow to peace, but he says preparations for peace talks continue. One big concern is the location of the talks. Original plans called for holding them in the Niger Delta for symbolic reasons, but insecurity could prevent that.

He adds, "The governor of this state, Rivers State, has also received threats from MEND that they're going to attack his family. But he said that's not going to deter any government activity and that he's still going ahead to do what he has to do. And essentially he's going to take the fight to MEND."

What's more, Offor says there's debate within the military as to how hard it should strike at MEND. Some say a strong blow is needed to send a clear message to armed groups in the country. Others warn is could lead to an escalation of violence, which could in turn result in huge fires and other major damage to oil facilities.