AREPO, Nigeria (AP) -- Thick plumes of smoke rose into the sky and fire danced across the fuel-slicked waters surrounding the Nigerian pipeline, another attacked and vandalized so thieves could steal the gasoline inside.
But this attack didn't happen in Nigeria's oil-rich and unrest-prone Niger Delta, where crude oil pipelines are routinely targeted. Instead, this attack occurred in Nigeria's southwest, signaling a worrying expansion in the unstopped thefts hitting the country's petroleum-based economy.
"It's just like farming. It's just like banking," said Jacob Oladapo, an assistant commandant general with Nigeria's Security and Civil Defense Corps. "They are trying to make a living ... and they find new ways to do it."
The corps, charged with defending and monitoring the pipelines crisscrossing Nigeria, discovered the pipeline on fire Wednesday morning in the midst of a gun battle with oil thieves, Oladapo said. His men returned fire, but no one was injured in the firefight, he said.
Later Wednesday, officials with Nigeria's National Emergency Management Agency found at least three burned bodies at the site of the pipeline attack, local spokesman Iyiola Akande said. Journalists from The Associated Press who arrived at the pipeline fire late Wednesday afternoon could not reach the site, as it was deeper into a mangrove creek and there were no boats. In the distance, however, flames could be seen across the muddied waters of the creek.
In the past, attacks on oil pipelines saw rebel and criminal groups detonate explosives to damage the lines and halt production by the foreign oil companies operating in Nigeria, a nation of more than 160 million people that is an important supplier to the U.S. However, some cut into the lines with hacksaws and blow torches to install spigots to steal the crude flowing within the lines, an operation locally known in Nigeria as "bunkering."
A 2009 government-sponsored amnesty program cut down on the militant attacks, but in their place, bunkering rose dramatically into a business that analysts and diplomats say involves Nigeria's military and its top political elite. Small, informal refineries dot the delta and from the air, one can see crude oil, spilled from pipelines and by thieves, spreading over the creeks like ink stains.
While the government of President Goodluck Jonathan has pledged to contain the crude oil thefts, the thefts happen around the leader's delta home. And the thefts have become an incredibly lucrative business. In November, the International Energy Agency estimated that the theft of crude oil alone in Nigeria cost the country about $7 billion a year.
The increasing attacks in the southwest target gasoline, instead of crude, pipelines running through the region owned by the state-run Nigerian National Petroleum Corp. The pipelines remain a vital source of fuel for a nation that largely imports most of its gasoline in a multi-billion dollar system that lawmakers described as a massive scam last year. Officials blamed a pipeline attack in the region this December for causing short supplies and a run on gas stations in Lagos, as well as other parts of the country. Another pipeline attack about two weeks ago near Lagos likely killed dozens, officials have said, though failing to provide an exact tally of the dead.
But whether anything will be done to stop the attacks remains unclear at this point. On Wednesday, rifle-carrying members of the Security and Civil Defense Corps reinforced those near the burning pipeline. A cry went up among the officers that the state governor might be coming. A fire truck even showed up, though it was impossible for it to drive into the swamp to reach the burning inferno.
After about a half hour, however, the fire truck turned around and drove away. The civil defense officers also mounted their trucks and drove away, with one young officer firing his assault rifle into the air, though no one was around except for three foreign journalists.
At that point, as the sun began to set, the fire still burned without any government official to monitor it.
Jon Gambrell can be reached at www.twitter.com/jongambrellAP.