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Tougher security needed for Nigeria's offshore oil

ABUJA (Reuters) - Oil firms operating off Nigeria need tougher security measures like floating blast-proof barriers to prevent the sort of attack that crippled Royal Dutch Shell’s main offshore facility, security experts say.

Oil workers walk through pipe installations on a tanker at Bonga off-shore oil field outside Lagos, October 30, 2007. Oil firms operating off Nigeria need tougher security measures like floating blast-proof barriers to prevent the sort of attack that crippled Royal Dutch Shell's main offshore facility, security experts say. REUTERS/Akintunde Akinleye

Militants in speedboats attacked Shell’s Bonga field 120 km (75 miles) from the coast on Thursday, forcing the firm to stop production and shocking an industry that thought such deepwater sites were relatively immune from sabotage.

The attack showed that existing security measures at offshore facilities -- including anti-climb paint, blast walls meant to withstand an industrial explosion and 24 hour patrols by naval personnel -- were not sufficient, experts said.

New technology including long range acoustic warning devices (LRAD), originally intended for U.S. warships, blast-proof floating steel walls and rapid patrol boats with mounted machine-guns would be needed to protect against such attacks, they said.

“The truth is that oil companies are not really built for warfare. They’re not really prepared for this kind of incident,” a private security contractor in the oil industry told Reuters.

Security sources described the Bonga attack as astonishingly bold. The militants used small boats to travel by night, through notoriously strong currents, a distance more than three times the width of the Strait of Dover separating England and France.

The distance alone of deepwater sites like Bonga from the Nigerian coast meant that oil companies had assumed they would not be subjected to the level of attacks that have cut output in the shallow creeks of the Niger Delta in recent years.

“At the moment, the main operators who are really putting a lot of time, money and effort into security are those relatively close to the shore, up to around 10 km,” said a security expert working in the oil industry.

EMERGENCY MEETING

The attack on Bonga raised the prospect of a new campaign of violence in the deep waters of the Gulf of Guinea by militants who, until now, have largely limited their actions to blowing up pipelines and kidnapping oil workers onshore.

Nigeria’s House of Representatives has called an emergency meeting for Monday with the defence and oil ministers, national security adviser and foreign oil firms to discuss the attack.

“It is an indication that these kind of attacks are going to become a trend,” said Rolake Akinola, senior West Africa analyst with independent risk consultancy Control Risks.

“It is about the militants being able to adapt themselves to the changing strategies of the oil companies,” she told Reuters.

The group that claimed responsibility -- the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) -- said it had targeted Bonga to show that attacks on deepwater exploration sites were not beyond its reach.

It warned oil and gas tankers to avoid Nigerian waters.

Security experts said steel booms -- floating barriers used to control access to offshore sites -- could be reinforced to prevent attackers blowing through them but that such measures needed to be just one part of a much bigger strategy.

Militant tactics in previous attacks -- such as pouring fuel into the air-conditioning system of a vessel and threatening to blow it up unless oil workers came out -- showed the only sure defence was preventing the militants reaching the facilities.

That meant fast patrol boats with mounted machine guns, LRAD technology to fire warning beams of high-frequency sound at militant vessels, advanced radars and potentially helicopter gunships as back-up, the oil industry security contractor said.

“Where possible, you really want to avoid getting into a firefight on or near an oil platform,” he said.

(For full Reuters Africa coverage and to have your say on the top issues, visit: africa.reuters.com/ )

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