LAGOS, June 24 – The Nigerian navy has sent two frigates on patrol near a major deep-sea oilfield attacked by rebels last week, a military source said Monday, a day after the rebels announced a unilateral ceasefire.
The NNS Nwamba and the NNS Ologbo are two small frigates, each mounted with two 30mm cannons and a crew of about 50.
The source said they were deployed on Saturday in waters around the Bonga oilfield, which had been attacked two days earlier by armed members of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND).
MEND, the most high-profile armed group in the oil-rich delta region, declared a unilateral ceasefire to begin midnight on Tuesday and lasting until "further notice".
"We are respecting an appeal by the Niger Delta elders to give peace and dialogue another chance," MEND said late Sunday.
The announcement marked an abrupt change of position from an earlier MEND message — entitled "Declaration of War" — in which the group warned foreign oil workers to leave the delta while it settled its scores with the federal government.
MEND, in an email to AFP, attributed its about-turn to concern over "the safety of innocent impoverished villagers who will be caught in a vicious cross fire".
"Attacks will still occur but we will not be ‘responsible’," MEND said, indicating strongly that it will equip and encourage others to carry out attacks during the ceasefire period.
Last week’s attack on a floating production facility in the Bonga oilfield sent shock waves through government and oil circles as it lies 120 kilometres (75 miles) from the Nigerian coast and had previously been considered out of the reach of militant groups.
President Umaru Yar’Adua responded by ordering the military and security forces to "take all necessary measures" to arrest those responsible and bring them to justice.
One military source said the two vessels deployed on Saturday would only have a dissuasive effect, as they are not sufficiently mobile and no match for the MEND speedboats.
Following the most recent attacks on oil facilities, notably those operated by Shell and Chevron, Nigeria, now the world’s thirteenth crude producer, has seen its output plummet.
Shell has declared force majeure on 225,000 barrels per day for June and July out of Bonga, while Chevron followed suit on 120,000 barrels per day after one of its pipelines in the Niger Delta was blown up.
The twin blows further amputated national production that had already slipped to 1.8 million barrels per day.
Force majeure is a legal clause allowing producers to miss contracted deliveries because of circumstances beyond their control.
An emergency closed-door meeting started Monday at the National Assembly in Abuja. Industry sources said the country’s military and security chiefs were present along with top officials from all the oil companies operating here.
An AFP journalist said nothing had filtered from the meeting by early afternoon.
Nigeria’s opposition Action Congress (AC) party has called for a probe into the Bonga attack.
The party questioned how the militants travelled so far from shore using the only boats they are believed to own — speedboats — and suggested a "mother vessel" may have assisted the gunmen.
The party also advised the government against using its usual tactics to solve the problem: a military crackdown followed by what AC called a "jamboree" disguised as a "stakeholders’ summit".
"Past, made-for-television summits on the Niger delta have yielded no positive results," AC said.
The government has been talking about holding a Niger Delta summit for the past 12 months. So far, no date has been set.
MEND has said it will not take part in the summit, unless one of its leaders standing trial on treason charges is released.