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Koinange: Big guns, big oil collide in Nigeria

By Jeff Koinange
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Editor's note: In our Behind the Scenes series, CNN correspondents share their experiences in covering news and analyze the stories behind the events. CNN Africa correspondent Jeff Koinange recently met with Nigerian militants, and here he describes what he saw and learned.

WARRI, Nigeria (CNN) -- Splashing across the murky waters of southern Nigeria in a speedboat, I suddenly found myself in one of the scariest positions of my journalistic career: masked militants firing machine guns at me and my crew.

We hit the deck, shouting, "We are press! We are press!" Eventually, the bullets stopped flying and the gunmen approached our boat, demanding to know who we were.

As I stared down the barrels of some very big guns, being held by angry young men, I began to have doubts about our trip here. (Watch Koinange meet hooded rebels, armed to the teeth against big oil Video)

The waters are so dangerous in these parts that the Nigerian navy doesn't even dare patrol the region. In a word, it's a no-go zone for outsiders.

"How many times do you people come here with your cameras and nothing is done? We don't want you guys to come here again," one of the gunmen shouted.

But we weren't about to leave so easily.

I had been given permission to come to the region from the militants themselves to find out what is happening in the Niger Delta, where the well-armed militants have been fighting Nigeria's beleaguered armed forces over oil. (Read more about the militants' battle)

These guys in their intimidating black outfits and matching black ski masks looked like any army's worst nightmare. And that's exactly what they've become: Nigeria's worst nightmare.

They call themselves the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, or MEND. They insist what they're trying to do is mend what they say is the unequal distribution from the profits Nigeria gets from its oil bonanza. (Gallery: See what the militants look like up close)

Nigeria is Africa's largest oil producer. In 2005, it was the world's sixth largest exporter of oil, but the conflict there has cut distribution by an estimated 500,000 barrels per day, the U.S. Department of Energy said in November.

Very little of the profits makes it back to Nigeria, and even less makes it down to the mangrove swamps of the Niger Delta.

As a result, MEND in recent months has escalated its struggle, kidnapping expatriate oil workers at an alarming rate (more than 30 in the last month alone), indiscriminately killing Nigerian military forces, and carrying out attacks on oil installations in the region that cut the flow of oil dramatically.

Hostages paraded before my eyes

Now, as guns pointed at me, I explained we had been given permission for them to take us to their leader. They laughed me off, saying their leader doesn't talk to anyone, especially journalists.

But they agreed to take us to one of their hideouts and show us something no Western journalist had seen: dozens of MEND militants in black dancing and chanting themselves into a trance. Some pointed their guns menacingly at us; others simply tried to intimidate us.

It was MEND military might for the whole world to see. And they told me this is just a fraction of their forces. They claimed to have more than 200,000 troops spread across an area the size of Texas. (Interactive: See where the Niger Delta is located)

As the militants danced, they displayed their latest hostages: 24 Filipino sailors captured on January 20 as their cargo ship tried to take turn into the port of Warri.

It is the largest number of foreign hostages ever captured here at a single time. The Filipinos seemed dazed and confused, their nerves wearing thin as they struggled to come to terms with a fight they said they have no clue about.

The militants fired into the air. The hostages flinched. I thought there was going to be an execution in front of us -- and I'm sure the hostages thought the same thing.

'Our fight is against everybody'

After about an hour, the militants agreed to take me to their leader. They said that due to his superstitions, we could only interview him out in the middle of the creeks and they took us back out into the water.

A short while later, he appeared, accompanied by a small army of heavily armed bodyguards.

He described himself as "Major General Tamuno," the field commander of MEND. He spoke softly through the slits of his black ski mask.

"MEND is a struggle for the liberation of the Niger Delta, the most devastated and the most threatened region in the world," he said.

"Our fight is against everybody -- every institution that don't want the people of the Niger Delta to have their fair share."

I learned this militant leader has a degree in political science from a local university, but he couldn't find work after college. Many of his men are the same -- educated and frustrated.

He told me foreigners working in Nigeria's oil sector should get out now.

"We will take lives, we will destroy lives, we will crumble the economy," he said bluntly.

And with that, the interview was suddenly over.

We were escorted back out into open waters by a convoy of speedboats. As we were about to leave, one of the masked gunmen reissued his group's threats.

"If they don't listen, well, maybe Nigeria will go into pieces. We don't know how many pieces it will go into, but the federal government will not be in peace unless they listen to us," he said.

And just like that, they were off -- speedboats spluttering in the water, gunfire echoing into the crisp afternoon air and, before we'd even put down our gear, the militants were gone.

Government response

After CNN ran this report Frank Nweke Jr., the Nigerian Minister of Information and Communications, blasted the piece by saying it "utterly disregards the most elementary principle of journalism because no government official was interviewed."

He said it "sends the wrong signals to the international community about the state of affairs in the country, create unnecessary panic, foster the feeling of insecurity, advance an out-dated thesis of neglect of the Niger Delta and portray Nigeria as a country in perpetual crises. It also glorifies criminality and undermines global efforts at eliminating terrorism."

CNN responded by saying, "We can tell you that CNN did make a considerable effort to obtain comment on the story from both the Nigerian navy and the Nigerian president's office. No one from the government was made available to CNN."

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CNN's Jeff Koinange is surrounded by militants at one of their hideouts.

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