Informal talks between the Anglo-Dutch oil giant Shell and striking Nigerian workers appeared deadlocked, two weeks into the latest labour dispute to disrupt Africa's largest oil industry.
Shell's external relations manager Don Boham told AFP that talks on the firm's controversial global restructuring plan had begun. "We expect all the concerns and fears of workers to be tabled and ironed out," he said.
But he insisted that no formal discussion of labour's fears of impending job losses would take place while the strike continues.
"A formal meeting might be convened if proper conditions for it are created. One of these conditions is that the current strike... is called off," he warned.
This appeared to end hopes of a rapid settlement, as labour leaders refused to back down unless management first addresses their demands.
"We can still talk and resolve these issues even when the strike is still on. We will not call off the strike until all or some of our demands are met," said Leonard Nwogu of the PENGASSAN oil union's Shell branch.
Mr Nwogu said the union wants Shell to abandon the restructuring plan, to halt a rise in the number of expatriates brought in to work in Nigeria and to return to Nigeria a computer system recently moved to The Hague.
White-collar Shell workers have been on strike since August 27.
Management activities at the company's three main offices in the cities of Lagos, Warri and Port Harcourt have been disrupted by the action, but so far crude oil production and export have reportedly been unaffected.
Nevertheless, the international oil market is watching the dispute warily, amid concerns it could force up world prices.
Union leaders told AFP that the Petroleum and Natural Gas Workers Senior Staff Association (PENGASSAN) would meet Shell executives in the Nigerian capital Abuja to discuss the dispute.
But Mr Boham described the talks as "informal", adding: "These meetings will go on throughout today and may spill over until tomorrow."
Shell is Nigeria's major oil producer, accounting for 870,000 barrels, almost half of the west African country's daily output.
World oil prices were stable in early London trading, but trader Kevin Blemkin said: "People still have their eyes on the Nigerian affair."
The white-collar strike is one of a series of crises to rock Nigeria's oil industry and worry the markets this year, as ethnic warfare and a rash of pirate attacks and kidnappings rattled the oil-rich Niger Delta.
Shell's Warri offices had only a skeleton staff on Tuesday due to the strike, witnesses said. Last month they were briefly closed altogether as rival militias battled in the city's streets.
In March, clashes in nearby swamps forced Shell and its US and French rivals ChevronTexaco and Total to evacuate many of their facilities in the delta, temporarily cutting Nigerian production by 40 per cent.
And in May fears were raised over the safety of around 100 expatriate and 200 Nigerian oil workers trapped for more than two weeks on four offshore rigs hijacked by striking oil workers.
But the latest dispute is centred on a much more commonplace industry concern: fears that a restructuring plan - Shell's "Exploration and Production Globalisation Plan" - could lead to drastic job losses.
The plan will not be implemented until 2005 and Shell has insisted that it will not have any great impact on its Nigerian arm, the Shell Petroleum Development Company (SPDC).
"The Globalisation Plan is largely misunderstood. A study group led by a Nigerian has been asked to include the concerns of the workers in its terms of reference. The group will start work next month," Shell's Mr Boham said.
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