Nigeria's army said on Wednesday it would continue to fight criminal gangs behind oil theft in the oil-producing Niger Delta, opening up the prospect of a new campaign of violence against the oil industry in the western Delta. Militants are demanding the removal of the region's military commander over his tough line on oil-related crime. Gilbert da Costa has more for VOA from Abuja.

Spokesman for the Niger Delta's joint military task force, Lieutenant Colonel Rabe Abubakar, says the army's strategy of fighting a network of criminal gangs involved in crude oil theft and kidnappings for ransom in the Niger Delta will continue despite threats by militants to resume attacks on the oil industry.

"The JTF [Joint Military Task Force] has intensified its fight against illegal oil bunkering and pipeline vandalization," he said. "And there is no going back on that."
The unrest in the Delta has reduced Nigeria's oil output by more than a quarter. Production currently stands at about two million barrels a day against 2.6 million barrels two years ago.

Militants in the western Delta, which has been much quieter than the volatile east, are demanding the removal of the region's military commander, General Wuyep Rimtip. Rebels say the new commander has taken a tougher stance than his predecessor in fighting bunkering, a multimillion dollar trade in stolen oil.

Governments in the western states of Delta and Bayelsa had long turned a blind eye to criminals engaged in bunkering to discourage attacks on the oil industry. The military crackdown has prompted threats from militants to bring chaos to the region.

Clashes have been reported and the main rebel group said on Tuesday it may join other militants in western Delta in a violent campaign against the oil industry and security forces.

A journalist in the western Niger Delta's main town of Warri, Cletus Opukeme, says a showdown between the army and rebels appears inevitable.

"The youths are warming up hard to fight the soldiers because the presence of the soldiers is against their illicit oil bunkering business," he said. "The [Delta state] government is trying to tell the soldiers to allow the boys to continue their illicit oil business but the soldiers said no. So the situation is getting worse."

Officials say that millions of dollars are lost daily in crude oil stolen in the Niger Delta,  home to Nigeria's multibillion-dollar oil and gas industry.