CAMP FIVE, Nigeria -- From this small cluster of blue-roofed houses at the confluence of the Escravos River and Chanomi Creek, a militant named Government Ekpemupolo got rich.
Many oil and cargo vessels going to the port of Warri paid protection money to Mr. Ekpemupolo, according to Nigerian military officials, local militants, and employees of oil companies operating in the area. Mr. Ekpemupolo controlled Camp Five -- a former construction-company site taken over by militants a few years ago. Those who didn't pay were often accosted by militants, in speedboats mounted with machine guns, who would demand money or abduct their crews.
But an assault last month on a military convoy escorting an oil tanker provoked a counterattack that marked a new phase in the Niger Delta conflict.
On May 13, the CM Spirit, contracted to the state oil company, was attacked by eight heavily armed speedboats as it passed Camp Five, heading to Warri with 15,000 metric tons of fuel, according to the military and the ship captain. At least one soldier in the ship's military escort died, according to Gen. Sarkin-Yaki Bello, the Niger Delta commander. The Filipino captain of the Spirit, Napoleon Emphasis, says he was held at Camp Five along with 15 members of his crew, all countrymen.
Two days later, the Nigerian military responded with a rare use of firepower and gained control of Camp Five, one of several militant bases in the area. The Delta region has a population of about 15 million people -- nearly 10% of the country's population -- belonging to more than 100 ethnic groups.
What began as a mission by the government to rescue the missing servicemen and crew appears to have evolved into an effort to rid the entire Niger Delta of militant strongholds, though no one knows exactly how many there are or how many militants use them.
The government says it hopes that after repeated military failures, the success at Camp Five and a sustained offensive can wrest control of the oil-rich area from the militants -- numbering in the thousands by some estimates, many operating under the umbrella group Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, or MEND.
President Umaru Yar'Adua told reporters that he will unveil this month an offer of amnesty, the first of its kind, to militants who lay down their weapons.
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