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Violence in Niger Delta expands into gang war

  • Story Highlights
  • Kidnappers in Nigeria's oil heartland release a Bulgarian and a Briton
  • Deadly gang fight in Port Harcourt enters its third day
  • Violence in the Niger Delta expands from targeted attacks for political reasons
  • Now, wave of abductions for ransom, armed robberies and gang wars
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PORT HARCOURT, Nigeria (Reuters) -- Kidnappers in Nigeria's oil heartland released a Bulgarian and a Briton after a month in captivity on Wednesday, but elsewhere in the anarchic region a deadly gang fight entered its third day.

The two employees of British oil company Exprogroup had been abducted on July 8 from a barge near Calabar in Cross River state, prompting Britain to add the previously peaceful state to a list of no-go areas in Nigeria.

Further west in Port Harcourt, the capital of Rivers state and the main city in the vast Niger Delta oil region, residents said street gunbattles had broken out for the third day running as criminal gangs fought a bloody turf war.

"We're into the third day of shooting. The skirmishes have been breaking out in several locations around the city. Most of the people killed were innocent bystanders," said a human rights activist in the city who did not wish to be named.

The Rivers state police commissioner declined comment. He was quoted in Wednesday's edition of This Day newspaper as saying eight people were killed in the first two days' violence.

The gang fighting is typical of the way the violence in the Niger Delta has broadened from targeted attacks by militants pressing political demands to an uncontrollable wave of abductions for ransom, armed robberies and gang wars.

Violence escalated in early 2006 when armed groups demanding control over oil revenues and an end to neglect by corrupt politicians started blowing up pipelines and oil wells and kidnapping foreign oil workers.

The unrest shut down several major oilfields and output from Nigeria, the world's eighth-biggest exporter, has been reduced by at least a fifth and at times up to a third. The disruption has helped push oil prices to record highs on world markets.

Hostage taking, however, has over time become a commercial enterprise for copy-cat criminals.

The politically motivated rebels have been much quieter since a new government took office on May 29 promising negotiations and better governance in the impoverished delta, but abductions for ransom and other forms of violence continue.

Over 200 foreigners have been kidnapped since early last year. Most have been freed in exchange for money. Thousands of expatriate workers and their families have fled the Niger Delta, slowing the execution of some oil and infrastructure projects.

The Bulgarian foreign ministry said its released national was expected to arrive in Sofia via Paris on Thursday. The British embassy in Nigeria confirmed the Briton seized at the same time had also been released.

After their release and that of six Russians whose two-month hostage ordeal ended on Tuesday evening, there are at least four foreigners left in the hands of various delta armed groups. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

Copyright 2007 Reuters. All rights reserved.This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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