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NIGERIAN REBELS SUSPECT U.S. PRESENCE IN OIL AREAS

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Feb 27 (GIN) - Militants of the Ijaw oil-producing region who are battling the multinational oil companies for greater equity in oil revenues, are reporting sightings of U.S. military forces in the contested areas.

Militants of the group MEND (Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta) made the charge after releasing pictures of seven foreign hostages taken in skirmishes at a barge run by U.S. oil services company Willbros.

Some nine hostages have been taken three Americans, o­ne Briton, Two Egyptians, two from Thailand and o­ne Filipino. The conflict has sent oil prices shooting up, and output in Nigeria the world's eighth largest oil exporter as already been cut by a fifth.

Meanwhile, in a related development, a Nigerian court in the southern city of Port Harcourt Friday ordered Royal Dutch Shell to pay $1.5 billion it had been fined in 2004 to compensate local communities for environmental pollution caused by the company's activities in the southern Niger delta region.

Shell has been under fire in Nigeria for many years over its environmental record. According to a report commissioned by Greenpeace, Shells major oil spills in Nnigeria total a massive 7.4 million liters. Of the major spills from Shell operations in over 100 countries worldwide, 40% occurred in Nigeria, according to the report.

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