Several Children Reported Missing as NNPC Pipeline Explodes in A’Ibom

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  • N’Delta Avengers claims responsibility, police dismiss allegation
  • FG will use force if dialogue fails, Buratai confirms
  • Buhari asks NNPC to fast-track oil exploration in North

Ernest Chinwo in Port Harcourt, Senator Iroegbu, Chineme Okafor in Abuja, Okon Bassey in Uyo and Sylvester Idowu in Warri

Many children were reported missing monday while trying to escape from a Sunday night explosion at a gas pipeline operated by the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) in Obotim Nsit, Nsit Ibom Local Government Area of Akwa Ibom State.

Confirming the pipeline blast, the Akwa Ibom Police Command monday said that there was an explosion at the gas pipeline in the community, but dismissed reports that the incident was caused by the Niger Delta Avengers (NDA), which claimed responsibility for the explosion. It was also silent on reports that several children were missing as a result of the blast.

However, the village head of the community, Chief Akponidung Akpan Ukpong, raised the alarm yesterday, stating that several children could not be found after residents were forced to flee from the explosion that occurred late Sunday.

The community head said when he came out of his house due to the pandemonium that had ensued, he encountered very heavy flames and people running for safety.

“So many children are missing and we are still looking for them; we have not traced them and many people have been taken to the hospital,” he declared.

Besides the missing children, the village head said the explosion damaged the farmlands in the community.

But while the state Commissioner of Police, Mr. Murtala Mani, said that the explosion was not caused by an attack on the pipeline by militants, the Transition Committee Chairman in the area, Mr. Victor Umondak, disagreed, saying militant activities could not be ruled out.

Mani, who spoke in Uyo, the state capital on the explosion, attributed it to a technical fault.

“It is confirmed that there was an explosion in Obotim Nsit in Nsit Ibom Local Government Area of the state.

“People around the pipeline confirmed that the pipelines are old and overdue for servicing, there were technical problems with the gas pipeline.

“This is no militancy attack, our men are on the ground and the fire service have put out the fire,” the police commissioner stressed.

Although the incident happened at night, he said there were no casualties and no house was razed, adding that the site of the explosion had been condoned off.

“Our men are putting finishing touches, our people are completely on the ground and the place is well condoned off and secured.

“We are waiting for the experts to give us their report, so that we can write our report too on the incident,” he added.

However, Umondak gave another account of what might have transpired on Sunday night, claiming that militants connected a wire from the gas pipeline to the road before exploding the pipeline.

According to him, he got a call that his local government area had been bombed by militants in Obotim Ikot Ekong and he drove to the scene of the incident at 1.30 a.m. on Monday.

“I received a call that my local government was burning, and I wasn’t really sure of what had happened and another person called me to say they had blown a pipeline at Obotim Ikot Ekong.

“I drove down but nobody could get close to the place, so we stood about 200 meters away from the burning pipeline because it was like hell fire,” he said.

Umondak’s assertion aligned with that of the Avengers, which claimed responsibility for the latest incident on Sunday night.

It said yesterday in a statement that the attack was executed at 11.30 p.m. on Sunday.

According to its spokesman, Mudoch Agbinibo, “At 11.30 p.m. on Sunday, the NDA blow up the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) gas pipeline at Nsit-Ibom LGA, Akwa Ibom State. NNPC should check their pipeline if it’s a system anomaly.”

Further checks by THISDAY within security circles, however, revealed that several factors were responsible for the attack on the facility by members of the Avengers.

A highly placed security source disclosed that the attack might have been in response to President Muhammadu Buhari’s stance not to dialogue with criminals, but genuine agitators in finding a solution to the renewed crisis in the region.

He also said that another factor was the series of arrests of members of the Avengers which have slowly but gradually tilted towards apprehending the brains behind the group.

“You will observe that we have recorded successes in arresting some of their commanders who have been helping in apprehending more of their so called operatives, so we don’t expect their leaders to fold their arms.

“That might also be responsible for the Akwa Ibom blast on Sunday night,” he said.

THISDAY learnt that security has been beefed up in Akwa Ibom and Cross River States, following the attack on ExxonMobil’s facility in Akwa Ibom by the militant group.

Although the two states are not under the Joint Task Force (JTF), code named Operation Delta Safe, security sources disclosed that military formations in the area were being drafted into the mandate of the special security outfit, following incursions into the area by the militants.

The Joint Media Coordinator of the JTF, Lt-Colonel Laolu Mercellius, could not be reached for confirmation, as his mobile phone was switched off, but an aide said he was attending a meeting.

Force Remains an Option

But with the ceaseless sabotage of oil and gas infrastructure, the Chief of Army Staff, Lt.-Gen. Tukur Buratai, yesterday warned militants in the Niger Delta that the federal government would resort to the use of force if current efforts at dialogue fail, confirming THISDAY’s exclusive report yesterday that the military was preparing for a massive offensive against the militants, in the event peace talks with the government fail.

Buratai spoke in Port Harcourt, Rivers State, at the inauguration of the new ultra-modern 2 Brigade headquarters complex and Olympic size swimming pool, among other facilities.

He advised militant groups operating in the Niger Delta region to take advantage of the willingness of the federal government to use peaceful means to end the agitation in the region rather than resorting to violence.

“Government is still committed to dialogue and whereby this cannot go on, then there could be resort to other means.

“Non-kinetic (force) means have always been the source first before government can seek recourse to kinetic means.

“So there is need for the Niger Delta Avengers to see reason and dialogue with government,” he said.

Buratai, who was represented by the General Officer Commanding 82 Division, Enugu, Maj.-Gen. Ibrahim Attahiru, also said the military would provide security for the July 30 legislative re-run election in the state if necessary.

He said the army was faced with a shortage of accommodation, offices and other infrastructure needed for optimal performance by troops.

The army chief observed that the current interventions at renovating dilapidated structures and building new ones had gone on despite dwindling resources.

“The newly built RSM accommodation quarters and brigade administrative headquarters will provide a conducive atmosphere for higher productivity by officers and soldiers.

“Also, the Olympic size swimming pool will avail troops the opportunity to continue to train and prepare for amphibious operations in our maritime environment,” he said.

Buratai commended Brig.-Gen. Stevenson Olabanji, a former Commander of 2 Brigade, Port Harcourt, for overseeing the completion of the project for six months.

Earlier, Olabanji, who is now the Commander, 3 Brigade, Kano, said he embarked on the project with the aim of improving the command and control operations of the brigade.

“On assumption of office, I thought it wise to build a structure that would accommodate all the staff branches and sub-units of the brigade.

“Similarly, the Olympic size swimming pool came about as a result of the deaths of some soldiers who died because of their inability to swim.

“The swimming pool will enhance troops confidence and increase their chances of survival in emergency situations during the conduct of operations on waterways and the creeks,” he said.

DHQ: No Contractor Hired to Fight Militants

In a related development, the Defence Headquarters (DHQ) has debunked allegations that the federal government has hired military contractors and mercenaries to help the Nigerian security forces tackle the militants in the creeks.

The Director of Defence Information (DDI), Brig-Gen. Rabe Abubakar, stated this yesterday in response to THISDAY’s inquiries on Operation Delta Safe and the alleged recruitment of Blackwater military contractors from Saudi Arabia as part of an overall strategy to confront rising militancy in the Niger Delta.

An online report had alleged that President Muhammadu Buhari might have signed a $258 million deal with Saudi Arabia for the deployment of Blackwater, a US military contractor used in the Iraqi war, to assist the Nigerian military fight militants in the oil-rich Niger Delta.

According to a website, an official of the Royal Embassy of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in Nigeria confirmed the deal, stating that it was “part of the agreement in the Saudi-led Sunni Islamic coalition against terrorism” that President Buhari signed up for on behalf of Nigeria.

The deal, according to the report, was targeted at fighting militants in the Niger Delta and had nothing to do with Boko Haram.

Abubakar, however, dismissed the report as a hoax being peddled by some people to distract the military from continuing with its security operations in the area.

He said the military was capable, well prepared and properly equipped to protect the lives and property of all Nigerians without any external help, especially from mercenaries or contractors.

“As far as the military is concerned, we don’t know anything about it. Our military is capable of playing its role of maintaining and securing the territorial integrity of the country and this issue of mercenaries or security contractors is a rumour being peddled by disgruntled elements to cause distractions.

“So the issue of Blackwater is not an issue and non-existent as far as the military is concerned. The military doesn’t know about this issue of Blackwater or Whitewater, and we are well armed and professionally capable of protecting the lives and property of the country” he said.

Concerning Operation Delta Safe, the defence spokesman insisted that the military would have to respect the ongoing negotiations between the federal government and militants, adding that a military intervention would used as a last resort if the negotiations and entreaties fail.

Oil Exploration in the North

Meanwhile, President Buhari has asked NNPC to fast-track oil and gas exploration within the Chad Basin and Kolmani River, the Group Managing Director of NNPC, Dr. Maikanti Baru, has said.

Baru disclosed this to journalists yesterday in Abuja when the Governor of Bauchi State Mohammed Abubakar paid him a courtesy visit.

According to him, the president asked the corporation to further explore the reported indicative discovery of hydrocarbons by Anglo-Dutch oil company, Shell, in the Chad Basin and Kolmani River, with a view to making the most of it.

He said the directive had been heeded and the corporation’s Frontier Exploration Services retooled to commence this with the Northern Nigeria Development Company (NNDC), which he noted was already prospecting for oil within the basin.

He also explained that the Department of Petroleum Resources (DPR) had been intimated on the need to assign blocks in the basin for prospective investors to take up.

“I thank you for your support for me to deliver in this turbulent waters and definitely, we are committed to collaborate with you and other state governors to drive all the initiatives that will fulfill the national aspirations as expected from my industry especially in the area of energy security.

“Now is a very difficult time for us with all the challenges of the leakages that we suffer from infractions of our infrastructure in terms of pipeline vandalism and theft to be able to meet obligations to the Federation Account Allocation Committee (FAAC).

“We will continue to meet this obligation timely and effectively as much as possible,” said Baru to the governor.

He further said: “Very close to home, we have exploration activities in the frontier basin, that is in Lake Chad and also there are some areas close to the Kolmani River where Shell had made indicative discoveries of hydrocarbons and Mr. President has directed me to go into that area to reprove and further explore the magnitude and prospects of those finds.

“We are taking steps to restrategise and get into those regions. We will reinvigorate the frontier exploration and see how they collaborate with NNDC that is holding Block 809 where some of the finds have been found and also DPR for the other blocks that have not been assigned and work towards proving the prospects of that region.”

He called on Abubakar to lend the corporation his government’s support in protecting and securing its petroleum infrastructure.

He stated: “A critical area of support that we will implore you is the security of our pipelines that transverse the state from Jos through Bauchi to Gombe and onwards to Maiduguri and Yola.

“There has been reported vandalism and we will request Your Excellency to assist us with the necessary security surveillance to ensure that such vandalism is ended.”

Abubakar had earlier stated that he was at the corporation to felicitate with Baru on his appointment as the head of NNPC, as well as affirm the state’s support for him.

“We have come to congratulate Dr. Maikanti Baru for attaining the very prestigious position of Group Managing Director of the NNPC. We felt it incumbent to be the first to come to NNPC to congratulate the GMD,” he said.

The governor added: “We have back at home been following with keen interest the rise of Dr. Maikanti Baru in the industry. He has brought with him a very fantastic curriculum vitae to the position of the GMD of NNPC and we feel it is very important for us at this time at the onset to come and assure him of the backing and support of the government and good people of Bauchi State.

“We are aware of the situation in the international market, everybody is also aware of the internal challenges we are facing in the country. We are hopeful and prayerful that we will surmount the internal problems and the price of oil will pick up in the international market.”