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Monday, May 31, 1999 Published at 17:08 GMT 18:08 UK

World: Africa

Nigerian ethnic fighting erupts

Nigeria's oil region: more ethnic trouble

Dozens are reported to have died in renewed ethnic fighting near the Nigerian oil town of Warri.

BBC's Barnaby Phillips: The Niger Delta crisis is one of the most pressing issues facing the new president
Nigerian newspapers said armed youths in motor boats took part in an organised attack on the village of Arunton, forcing hundreds of people to flee the area.

One witness was quoted as saying: "The youths immediately started shooting ... There was panic all over the town. Most parents took to their heels and abandoned their children in the process."

Oil companies based in the area said there was substantial and brutal fighting but were unable to confirm the numbers of deaths.

There were heavy bursts of automatic gunfire and injured people were evacuated for treatment in local hospitals by oil company helicopters.

Local newspaper reports said more than 50 people died but the BBC's Barnaby Phillips says casualty figures in the Nigerian press are often exaggerated.

Eyewitnesses say that given the scale of the shooting, it is possible that many people died.

One oil company is reported to have moved hundreds of people out of the area for their own safety.

Solution pledge

Successive military governments have been unable to solve the crisis in the Delta but newly-installed elected President Olusegun Obasanjo has pledged to do his best to find a solution.

It is the latest in a series of clashes between the Ijaw and the Itsekiri - the two main ethnic communities in the Niger Delta.

Earlier this month 10 people were reported to have died in the region when Ijaw youths allegedly burned down two Itsekiri villages.

The two groups have been fighting since the beginning of 1997, although their disputes over land ownership go back hundreds of years.

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