updated 11/1/2004 2:10:47 PM ET 2004-11-01T19:10:47

Oil giant Royal Dutch/Shell Group opened a court action Monday to try to block a strike targeting oil exports in the world’s No. 7 crude exporter, but failed in a first-round bid to block wildcat strikes or other union action in the meantime.

The case comes one day after Nigeria’s unions called the Nov. 16 strike over rising fuel prices here, and promised to target Shell — the top multinational in Nigeria — as an “enemy” of the people for taking legal action.

The price of crude vaulted above the $52 mark Monday on the news. At midmorning in Europe, December crude on the New York Mercantile Exchange was trading electronically at $52.24 a barrel — up 48 cents from its Friday closing.

Federal Justice Abdullahi Mustapha in the commercial capital, Lagos, held only a brief hearing Monday on Shell’s attempt to block the strike, postponing the case until Nov. 18.

Mustapha rejected a request from Shell to forbid wildcat strikes or other union action in the interim.

Mustapha said such an order was unwarranted, and made only a verbal appeal to leaders of the country’s two powerful oil unions to “maintain the peace.”

“We will maintain the peace provided Shell doesn’t do anything to provoke us,” Brown Ogbeifun, president of the white-collar Petroleum and Natural Gas Senior Staff Association of Nigeria, told the court.

Judges also postponed to Nov. 18 a similar case against the blue-collar National Union of Petroleum and Natural Gas Workers of Nigeria.

Nigeria pumps 2.5 million barrels a day. It is the fifth-largest supplier of U.S. oil imports.

Nigerian unions are protesting September’s 23 percent increases in fuel prices domestically. An October strike over the fuel prices paralyzed business but did not target oil production.

Crude prices internationally hit an all-time intraday high of $55.67 on Oct. 26, driven up partly by fears of Nigerian supply disruptions among the labor unrest and threats from an oil-delta militia to block production.

A senior Shell official in Lagos, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Monday that Shell went to court in hopes of compelling unions to follow already-agreed-upon procedures for grievances.

“We have an agreement with the unions that before going on strike they have to declare a trade dispute. That way we know what the issues in dispute are and what we’re dealing with,” the official said.

General strikes in Nigeria are often violent, and at times deadly. An October general strike over fuel prices shut down most business in the country but did not affect oil production — unlike the strike planned for this month.

Despite Nigeria’s wealth, the majority of its 250 million people live on less than a dollar a day. Clashes over criminal gangs and ethnic militias vying for the local trickle-down from oil production have killed hundreds over the past year in Nigeria’s oil-rich Niger Delta.

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