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Nigeria: Police battle gangs over stolen crude

LAGOS, Nigeria (AP) -- Authorities are beefing up security forces in Nigeria's oil-industry capital, where soldiers will patrol around the clock after deadly clashes by rival armed gangs in recent days, officials said Thursday.

Nigerian army spokesman Col. Mohammed Yusuf said extra troops are deploying to the southern city of Port Harcourt in support of police battling armed gangs linked to local political groups and an illicit trade in stolen crude.

Yusuf didn't say how many extra soldiers were being sent to Port Harcourt, a main city in Nigeria's petroleum-rich south, but said they would be on patrol day and night.

"It's now a 24-hour patrol instead of the previous nightly patrols by the army," Yusuf said.

In the latest violence in Port Harcourt, gunmen in two Mercedes cars opened fire Tuesday on restaurant customers and other bystanders, police spokeswoman Ireju Barasua told The Associated Press.

The attack left four people dead and eight others "seriously injured," she said. Residents and other witnesses said between 10 and 18 people were killed.

The international petroleum firms that pump most of the output of Africa's largest oil exporter have key offices in Port Harcourt.

Local rights groups blame the proliferation of weapons in the city on politicians who armed thugs during the run up to 2003 general elections.

Some of the weapons have also fallen into the hands of criminal gangs stealing crude from pipelines that crisscross the region -- a trade which costs Nigeria between 5 and 10 percent of its output of 2.5 million barrels daily.

Nigeria, in addition to being Africa's largest oil exporter, is the world's seventh-largest oil exporter and the fifth-biggest source of U.S. oil imports.

Copyright 2004 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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