* First major strike since military offensive
* Chevron says 100,000 bpd shut-in
* Oil infrastructure at continued risk
(Recasts, adds background, details)
By Nick Tattersall
LAGOS, May 25 Nigerian militants launched their
first major strike against the oil industry since the start of a
10-day old military offensive late on Sunday, bombing a Chevron
(CVX.N) pipeline and shutting 100,000 barrels per day of output.
The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND)
said in an email it had sabotaged pipelines to flow stations at
Alero Creek, Otunana, Abiteye, Makaraba and Dibi feeding a
Chevron facility in Delta state.
The U.S. energy firm confirmed one of its pipelines in the
Abiteye area was breached on Sunday and said it had shut in
production as a precautionary measure while checks were made.
"To protect the environment, the incident has led to the
shut in of approximately 100,000 bpd production from swamp
operations in Delta State," a Chevron spokesman said.
"The company is currently assessing the situation, while the
incident has been reported to relevant government agencies."
The military began its biggest offensive for years 10 days
ago, bombarding militant camps around Warri in Delta state from
the air and sea and sending three battalions of soldiers to hunt
down rebels believed to have fled into surrounding communities.
It said it could no longer "fold its hands" after attacks on
soldiers, pipeline bombings and the hijacking of oil vessels,
all of which have prevented Nigeria from reaching its full
production potential in recent years.
The OPEC member's output peaked at around 2.4 million bpd
before MEND burst onto the scene in early 2006 and knocked out
almost a quarter of production in a matter of weeks.
Output has never fully recovered. Oil Minister Rilwanu
Lukman told reporters at a G8 energy ministers' meeting in Rome
on Monday that Africa's biggest exporter was currently pumping
about 1.5-1.6 million bpd, roughly half its installed capacity.
The security forces say they have destroyed at least two
major militant camps in the Chanomi Creek area around Warri
since launching their offensive and that they are now in control
of the ground in the surrounding creeks.
But industry and security sources say it is virtually
impossible to fully protect hundreds of kilometres of pipeline
running through remote and largely unpopulated areas, leaving
infrastructure exposed to hit-and-run guerrilla raids.
MEND warned such attacks would continue.
"We will continue our cat-and-mouse tactics with (the
military) until oil exports cease completely," it said.
Militant groups say they are fighting for a fairer share of
the oil wealth for local people in the Niger Delta, still deeply
impoverished despite five decades of oil extraction.
But the armed gangs have grown rich from the industrial
scale theft of crude oil, worth millions of dollars a day, and
the line between militancy and criminality is blurred.
Security experts say the military offensive had been on the
cards for years but had been delayed partly by a lack of
equipment and training. The arrival of new hardware and a change
in the military top brass stiffened the government's resolve.
Major-General Sarkin-Yaki Bello, who commands the joint
military taskforce in the delta, said two officers and 16
soldiers were missing since the operation began.
The army says it will continue with its "cordon-and-search"
operations in the creeks around Warri until they are found.
(For full Reuters Africa coverage and to have your say on
the top issues, visit: af.reuters.com/ )
(Additional reporting by Joe Brock in London, Deepa Babington
in Rome and Segun Owen in Yenegoa; editing by James Jukwey)