AREPO, Nigeria (AP) — Thick plumes of smoke rose into the sky and fire danced across the fuel-slicked waters surrounding the Nigerian pipeline, another attacked and vandalized so thieves could steal the gasoline inside.
But this attack didn't happen in Nigeria's oil-rich and unrest-prone Niger Delta, where crude oil pipelines are routinely targeted. Instead, this attack occurred in Nigeria's southwest, signaling a worrying expansion in the unstopped thefts hitting the country's petroleum-based economy.
"It's just like farming. It's just like banking," said Jacob Oladapo, an assistant commandant general with Nigeria's Security and Civil Defense Corps. "They are trying to make a living ... and they find new ways to do it."
The corps, charged with defending and monitoring the pipelines crisscrossing Nigeria, discovered the pipeline on fire Wednesday morning in the midst of a gun battle with oil thieves, Oladapo said. His men returned fire, but no one was injured in the firefight, he said.
Later Wednesday, officials with Nigeria's National Emergency Management Agency found at least three burned bodies at the site of the pipeline attack, local spokesman Iyiola Akande said. Journalists from The Associated Press who arrived at the pipeline fire late Wednesday afternoon could not reach the site, as it was deeper into a mangrove creek and there were no boats. In the distance, however, flames could be seen across the muddied waters of the creek.
In the past, attacks on oil pipelines saw rebel and criminal groups detonate explosives to damage the lines and halt production by the foreign oil companies operating in Nigeria, a nation of more than 160 million people that is an important supplier to the U.S. However, some cut into the lines with hacksaws and blow torches to install spigots to steal the crude flowing within the lines, an operation locally known in Nigeria as "bunkering."
A 2009 government-sponsored amnesty program cut down on the militant attacks, but in their place, bunkering rose dramatically into a business that analysts and diplomats say involves Nigeria's military and its top political elite. Small, informal refineries dot the delta and from the air, one can see crude oil, spilled from pipelines and by thieves, spreading over the creeks like ink stains.
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