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Last Updated: Friday, 25 August 2006, 17:12 GMT 18:12 UK
Nigeria troops 'burn Delta slums'
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Nigerian soldiers have burnt hundreds of slum houses near where a soldier was killed during the kidnapping of foreign oil workers, residents say.

Residents in the city of Port Harcourt say the troops became angry when they learned one of their colleagues had been killed in a shootout.

Hundreds fled with their belongings as the fire spread through the slum area.

The army, which is pursuing militants in the Niger Delta, blamed the fires on militants disguised as soldiers.

I have nowhere to stay. My church, my house, most of my documents are burnt
Port Harcourt pastor

At least three foreigners were abducted by gunmen from a bar close to the offices of a subsidiary of the Italian oil company, Eni, on Thursday night, near where the slums were burnt.

During the kidnapping, a soldier protecting the workers was shot and killed.

Surprised

Residents say the soldiers then poured petrol onto their houses and set them on fire, accusing the community of sheltering militants.

A local pastor denied militants had been hiding in the area.

Niger Delta
Oil militants have caused a 25% drop in oil output
"The people who attacked came from the water, they do not stay here," he told the BBC's Focus on Africa programme.

"I have nowhere to stay. My church, my house, most of my documents are burnt," he said.

There are no reports of any deaths but one man had to go to hospital with burns, the pastor said.

Regional army spokesman Maj Sajir Musa denied the army had burnt the houses.

"It was the militants who disguised [themselves] in army uniform and set the places ablaze in an attempt to tarnish the image of the Nigerian army soldiers," he said.

"They have done that in response to our constructive efforts to get rid of armed robbers and hostage-takers."

Tensions

A few residents have now returned to pick through the charred remains, hoping to recover some of their belongings.

The incident comes just a week after Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo ordered the police and army to take a new tough line with armed men, who have been responsible for at least seven separate kidnappings in the space of a few weeks.

As part of the new policy, security forces last week raided another slum inside the city and arrested more than 100 people, though most were later released.

The BBC's Alex Last in Nigeria says what concerns local leaders, and the oil companies, is that this new tough policy will only increase tensions in an already volatile region.

The abductions and attacks on oil facilities have led to oil companies withdrawing staff, cutting Nigeria's oil production by a quarter.

Foreigners in Nigeria's oil capital, Port Harcourt, now move around with several armed guards.

Oil industry sources say hostage-taking has become an attractive business, as oil companies strike clandestine ransom deals - frowned upon by the government.


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