Explosions kill at least 7 near ceremony to mark Nigeria’s 50th independence after threat

By Bashir Adigun, AP
Friday, October 1, 2010

Explosions kill at least 7 near Nigeria ceremony

ABUJA, Nigeria — Two car bombs blew up on Friday as Nigeria celebrated its 50th independence anniversary, killing at least seven people in an unprecedented attack on the capital by militants from the country’s oil region.

The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, the main militant group in the country’s oil-rich southern delta, had threatened to attack the festivities and warned people to stay away.

“For 50 years, the people of the Niger Delta have had their land and resources stolen from them,” the group said in a statement. While Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation, is oil rich most people live on less than $1 a day. The delta is very impoverished and polluted from spills.

A third and smaller explosion hit a venue at Eagle Square where President Goodluck Jonathan stood with other dignitaries, about a 10-minute walk from where the car bombs detonated. A security agent was apparently injured in that blast heard by an Associated Press reporter, though the militant group later denied placing any explosives in the venue.

Friday’s attacks were the militants’ boldest yet, striking in Nigeria’s capital during an event with heavy security held hundreds of miles (kilometers) from the delta.

The car bombings seemed designed to lure first-responders and then kill them with a second blast. Five minutes after the first vehicle exploded, the second went off, killing at least seven people, a police officer told an AP reporter at the scene. At least one of the dead was a policeman, the officer said. The officer spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to reporters.

Inside Eagle Square, an AP reporter saw a small explosive detonate before members of the military gathered there. A security agent was seen lying on the ground near that blast.

The anniversary ceremony continued without interruption.

In a statement Friday afternoon to the AP, the militant group acknowledged that it knew allowing the second car bomb to detonate would put passers-by at risk.

We “warned the authorities ahead of time who decided to ignore the warning and alert the public,” the group said. It added: “The blame goes to the Nigerian authorities and our message to the families of those who may have been affected is that we deeply regret any loss of life.”

Upset by oil spills and the region’s unceasing poverty, militants in the delta have targeted pipelines, kidnapped petroleum company workers and fought government troops since 2006. That violence drastically subsided after a government-sponsored amnesty deal last year provided cash for fighters and the promise of job training. However, many ex-fighters now complain that the government has failed to fulfill its promises.

In March, MEND detonated two car bombs near a government building in the Niger Delta where officials were discussing the amnesty deal, wounding two people in an attack heard live on television.

In April 2006, MEND claimed responsibility for attacks on an army barracks and an oil refinery during which two people were killed. It also detonated a car bomb outside a state governor’s office in December 2006.

The attacks Friday come a day after it says security agencies in South Africa raided the home of its former leader Henry Okah. Okah was freed from a Nigerian jail in July 2009 after the nation’s attorney general dropped the treason and gun running charges he was facing. He later moved to Johannesburg.

The militant group said Okah’s house was raided after the Nigerian government “sent a false petition claiming Okah planned to overthrow the government and other claims.” Police in South Africa could not confirm any raid took place at Okah’s home.

Nigeria, which has had only a decade of continuous democracy since it gained its independence from Britain in 1960, is one of the top crude oil suppliers to the U.S. Last year, attacks by militants led to a sharp drop in oil production, allowing Angola to replace Nigeria as Africa’s No. 1 exporter.

Gambrell reported from Lagos, Nigeria. Associated Press writers Lekan Oyekanmi in Abuja, Nigeria and Donna Bryson in Johannesburg contributed to this report.

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