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Nigeria Pipeline Survivors Sought

July 13, 2000

OVIRI-COURT, Nigeria (AP) _ Nigerian officials pleaded Thursday for survivors of an oil pipeline explosion to seek treatment, but few emerged from hiding, apparently fearing arrest in the blast that killed at least 100 people.

Monday’s explosion near the villages of Adeje and Oviri-Court came after a vandalized pipeline caught fire. Pipeline sabotage is common in Nigeria, and the penalty in the past has ranged from prosecution to being shot on sight by police.

Niger state Gov. James Ibori urged the estimated 100 injured people to go to doctors, promising they would not be punished.

``This is no time for apportioning blame but a time to care,″ he said.

But the villages near the blast were practically empty Thursday, as were area hospitals. Many of the injured _ including those with serious burns _ were being treated by traditional doctors, witnesses said.

Dr. Vincent Oziga, a physician at a village hospital in nearby Mereje, said none of the injured turned up there.

``We learned of four victims who disappeared and two of them apparently died,″ he said. ``One would not come to hospital even after my nurses went to appeal to the family.″

Villagers also whisked away many of the bodies, meaning a true death toll may never be known. Witnesses have seen at least 100 corpses, and some local reporters have estimated as many as 250 killed.

The accident took place in the oil-rich Niger Delta, where the pipeline was carrying gasoline from a refinery to northern Nigeria. While exactly what set off the blast remains unclear, state oil officials blamed a fuel-smuggling ring for puncturing the pipeline to siphon off gasoline.

Ibori said police were seeking leaders of the smuggling ring.

Ndu Ughamadu, a state petroleum company spokesman, blamed an organized smuggling network for the disaster. He said the local crime ``barons″ intimidated local chiefs and sometimes used violence against authorities.

Many of the victims _ mainly impoverished villagers, including schoolchildren _ had been gathered close to the pipe to collect the fuel and sell it by the bucket along roadsides, witnesses said.

At the scene Thursday, firefighters sprayed chemical foam and water on the fire, which was still smoldering after damaging or destroying many buildings within a one-mile radius. Some bodies still lay in the field nearby. The area was filled with the overpowering stench of gasoline and rotting flesh.

The tragedy closely resembled an accident in nearby Jesse, where more than 700 people were killed in 1998. Since then, the government has tried to educate villagers about the danger of ``scooping,″ the illegal practice of scavenging fuel from pipelines.

Nonetheless, the pipeline here had been sabotaged seven times since January, state oil officials said. David Onos, a former police officer, said some villagers took the risk because of poverty _ the illegal fuel trade was their only source of income.

``The petrol has caused too much pain. It must stop,″ Onos said. ``The government must urgently provide jobs and a means of livelihood for the people.″

Hundreds of cases of pipeline sabotage are reported each year in Nigeria. Some are carried out by militants trying to force the government and oil companies to compensate communities for land use and alleged pollution. In other cases, villagers collect fuel for generators and other motors.

Nigeria is the world’s sixth-largest oil exporter, accounting for about one-twelfth of oil imported by the United States.

Update hourly