Nigerian court calls for delay in Bakassi handover

ABUJA, July 31 (Reuters) - A Nigerian court ordered authorities on Thursday not to transfer the disputed Bakassi peninsula to Cameroon until it had dealt with a lawsuit filed by community leaders opposed to the handover.

Nigerian forces are due to complete their long-delayed withdrawal from Bakassi, a peninsula of mangrove islands whose offshore waters are believed to be rich in oil, on Aug. 14 to comply with a 2002 World Court order.

But a group led by two former chairmen of Bakassi, Emmanuel Etene and Ani Esin, have sued the Nigerian authorities at a Federal High Court in the capital Abuja, seeking 456 billion naira ($3.87 billion) in compensation before the transfer.

“It is hereby ordered that parties should maintain the status quo and should not take any step pending the hearing of all applications,” presiding judge Mohammed Umar said.

He adjourned the case to Oct. 20.

Nigeria’s Justice Minister was not available for comment and it was not immediately clear if President Umar Yar’Adua, who said on Friday the world’s eighth biggest oil exporter was committed to pulling out of Bakassi, would obey the court order.

The suit is one of a series of attempts to block the transfer of the peninsula to Cameroon. Nigerian fishermen and their families make up about 90 percent of the population in Bakassi. A little-known armed Nigerian group has launched two attacks on Cameroonian soldiers in Bakassi in the past weeks and threatened more violence until the transfer is renegotiated.

Yar’Adua has said Nigeria will withdraw its forces from the region despite the attacks.

The two neighbours had argued about Bakassi for decades and come close to war over it on several occasions. Both agreed to abide by an International Court of Justice ruling in 2002 which recognised Cameroon's ownership of the peninsula. (For full Reuters Africa coverage and to have your say on the top issues, visit: ) (Writing by Tume Ahemba; editing by Nick Tattersall and Andrew Roche)