WARRI, Nigeria -- village women are occupying a Shell Oil installation in a peaceful demonstration amid surging ethnic violence in Nigeria's restive oil delta. At least 20 people have been killed in the Niger Delta since mid-July in attacks allegedly linked to tribal competition for oil revenues.
The 80 local women, aged 25 to 60, have set up house in Shell's Amukpe pipeline station, after a peaceful takeover in early July. They were demanding the company's Nigerian subsidiary keep its promises of jobs and other benefits for villages in the swampy, forested Niger Delta, a region the size of Scotland.
The women captured the station by driving out workers and changing the locks, protest leaders said. Their action comes in response to the company's moves to build a chain-link fence around the station -- preventing the women from drying the vital local staple, manioc, in the heat of gas flared as an unwanted byproduct of oil.
Shell officials said the company had fenced off the site to protect villagers from being hurt by the burning gas. "The only benefit of this fire that Shell burns day and night over our village is gone now. We are demanding our due," said Bessie Orhorhe, a 45-year-old protest leader.
Women wearing brightly colored wraparound skirts napped on the concrete floor of the station as others built cooking fires and toddlers played near pumping equipment outside. "Our children and our husbands ... have never been employed by the company. We want to know: Why they should continue operating here?" Orhorhe asked, of Shell.
A spokesman for Shell's Nigerian subsidiary, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the firm had asked the army and police to refrain from using force against the women. Talks were under way to end the impasse, he added.
The women's protest has forced the company to shut the pumping station, which normally accounts for production of 40,000 barrels of crude a day. Altogether, a wave of protests, kidnappings and ethnic violence since March have led Shell and ChevronTexaco to cut production by a total of 300,000 barrels of crude a day -- one-eighth of Nigeria's total production of 2.2 million barrels daily.
Nigeria is Africa's largest oil exporter and the fifth-biggest source of U.S. oil imports.
Women have taken over oil installations before over the past year, but Niger Delta residents charge oil companies are slow to keep the promises they make in negotiations to end the takeovers.
Ethnic tensions, meanwhile, are running in nearby towns and villages defended by troops in sand-bagged emplacements after rival Ijaw and Itsekiris tribal fighters launched retaliatory raids. The raids have left scores of houses in blackened, smoking ruins and killed more than 20 people -- a serious acceleration of violence in the region.
Five people were killed over the weekend when Itsekiris armed with machetes and guns raided the Ijaw-dominated village of Mangorogbene, said Fred Martins, secretary of the municipal government.
Martins said the raid was in apparent retaliation for another attack Thursday in which Ijaws killed 10 people in the Itsekiri town of Abi-Gborodo.
Ijaw activist Bimini Togba said another eight Ijaws were killed after their boat was ambushed by Itsekiri militants several days in mid-July. "We can't fold our hands and watch while our people are being killed," Togba told The Associated Press. Villagers said the tribal battles were motivated by competition over oil profits. Activists have long accused the Nigerian government and multinationals of diverting most of the money away from the Delta -- where most of Nigeria's oil is pumped -- and leaving ethnic militants to fight over the remainder.
Despite its mineral riches, the Delta is one of Nigeria's most impoverished regions with few roads, schools, clinics or other services.