YENAGOA, Nigeria (Reuters) - Hundreds of troops armed with rocket launchers and machine guns manned check points in Nigeria's oil-producing Bayelsa state on Monday as protesters staged rival rallies over the impeachment of the state governor.
The two opposing groups -- about 1,500 young men calling for Governor Diepreye Alamieyeseigha to step down, and about 1,000 women wanting him to stay -- remained peaceful under the close watch of soldiers deployed to the state capital Yenagoa overnight.
Armoured personnel carriers moved around town and about 50 riot police stood in front of the state government headquarters. Troops manned check points fortified with sandbags.
Military commander Elias Zamani told Reuters that armed militants had moved into the state, which pumps a quarter of Nigerian oil output, and he feared fighting could break out unless soldiers were deployed to pre-empt it.
``The area has been tense, there have been attempts by the house for impeachment. Militant youths have been moved into that place armed with weapons,'' Zamani told Reuters by telephone, giving no further detail on their identity.
``There are different groups. They way things are going it could escalate to where different groups start fighting. So it's a pre-emptive step to save lives and property.''
Alamieyeseigha fled money laundering charges in London earlier this month and returned to Nigeria where he has immunity while in office. The Bayelsa state house of assembly has taken steps to impeach him, but the motion is unlikely to achieve the two-thirds majority required to pass.
Another military official said the governor was using youths dressed in military uniforms to protect him since his police escort was withdrawn by federal authorities.
OIL OPERATIONS UNAFFECTED
Oil companies said their operations had not been affected, but that they were monitoring the situation closely.
``Right now, we don't think we are threatened. Our normal operations and routine continue,'' said a spokesman of Royal Dutch Shell, which accounts for almost half of Nigeria's output.
Alamieyeseigha has accused the federal government of persecuting him because of his ethnic Ijaw origin, and of trying to cause mayhem in the state as a pretext to impose a state of emergency, which would strip him of his powers.
Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo stepped up the pressure on Alamieyeseigha by denying his officials access to the state's monthly budget allocations.
The state's accountant-general was arrested by anti-fraud police in Abuja last week and other officials are wanted for questioning.
A charity worker with a project in Bayelsa state said he feared troops might use excessive force to intimidate residents of the delta, which could result in a violent backlash.
``Troops always exceed their brief in Nigeria and I fear there will be a reaction,'' said Chris Alagoa of Akassa Development Fund.
``Some groups are painting this as a fight between the Ijaw and the federal government. The consequences could be dire.''
In a country where looting of the public purse is rife, critics have accused Obasanjo of picking on Alamieyeseigha because he backs Vice-President Atiku Abubakar, who is fighting for supremacy in the ruling party ahead of elections in 2007.
Obasanjo has written to British Prime Minister Tony Blair seeking an explanation for Alamieyeseigha's escape from bail in London, where he was charged with laundering 1.8 million pounds. Nigerian authorities said he left Britain disguised as a woman.