Eight policemen and one civilian were killed on Tuesday when an armed gang in military fatigues attacked the offices of Italian oil company Agip in Nigeria and robbed a bank.
It was not clear if the attack in the southern city of Port Harcourt was by the same group which has kidnapped four foreign oil workers and crippled a tenth of Nigerian oil output during a month-long campaign of violence in the world’s eighth largest exporter.
The group of 20 to 30 men, armed with AK-47 assault rifles, arrived at the company’s compound in two speed boats, engaged police in a lengthy shootout and robbed a bank on the premises, he added.
A Reuters eyewitness who arrived at the scene shortly after the gunfight saw the corpses of eight police and one civilian being loaded into ambulances. Others were injured.
In Milan, the company confirmed the nine deaths and said in a statement that it had “temporarily evacuated staff and contractors from the area of the base affected by the incident and situation is currently under control”.
The raid on Agip, a unit of Italy’s ENI, came at a time of heightened alert in Western multinationals in the Niger Delta, which pumps almost all of Nigeria’s 2.4 million barrels a day.
Militants from the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta have attacked two major oil pipelines and abducted four workers ago from a Royal Dutch Shell platform. Output is down by 221,000 barrels a day.
Nigerian secret agents detained two government officials suspected of helping the kidnappers on Monday, raising hopes of a breakthrough in the case.
Government officials have expressed confidence the hostage crisis would soon end as negotiations progress on a ransom payment with a person whom they believe to be a credible representative of the kidnappers.
However, the militants have said they are not in talks to release their American, British, Honduran and Bulgarian captives and denounced the negotiators as bounty hunters.
“The hostages are going nowhere!” the group said in an email on Tuesday.
An Ijaw activist said the previously unknown movement contained two different groups: a politicized faction carrying out the attacks on oil installations and a more commercially minded gang holding the hostages.
With nine days since its last confirmed raid, the group has repeated threats to broaden its attacks on oil workers and installations across the delta. Dozens of people have already been killed in a campaign which helped pushed world oil prices to four-month highs last week.
Unions have threatened to withdraw workers from the restive region if the security situation deteriorates.
The militant group said it was preparing for an assault by the Nigerian army and had moved the four hostages deeper inside the delta’s maze of mangrove swamps for their own safety.
It reiterated that it would keep the hostages until it wins the release of two high-profile Ijaw prisoners: militia chief Mujahid Dukubo-Asari and former Bayelsa state governor Diepreye Alamieyeseigha, impeached for money laundering last month.
It is also seeking $1.5 billion from Shell to be paid to delta villages in compensation for oil spills.