On Thursday, Shell accepted that its presence in Nigeria had inadvertently fed poverty, violence and corruption in a published survey of its ethical and environmental record.

   

The company also acknowledged it was "difficult" to operate ethically in the Niger Delta, where conflict has surged periodically since the early 1990s, and said its attempts at community development had been "less than perfect".

   

The report was compiled with the help of three independent experts who ventured further in their own leaked report by saying that remaining in the Niger Delta beyond 2008 may be incompatible with Shell's ethical business principles.

   

News reports out of Lagos said this meant Shell may have to quit the nation, but a company spokesman denied this.

 

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"That (leaked report) is the view of the report's authors and not a view that we share," said the spokesman. "The Niger Delta and Nigeria is one of our heartlands... It's a place where we are developing our business."

   

Last year Shell produced over 900,000 of its four million barrels a day of total oil and gas output in Nigeria.

 

Controversy over Shell's impact on the community and the environment in the Niger Delta, the oil rich south of the country, has raged for years.

   

"The Niger Delta and Nigeria is one of our heartlands... It's a place where we are developing our business"

spokesman,
Shell

Determined efforts by the company to throw off its image as environmental despoiler and supporter of corrupt regimes have failed to deflect criticism of its conduct there, especially in the early 1990s.

  

A class action suit being prepared over the coming months will accuse the company and its directors of supporting military operations by Nigeria's former government against Ogoniland separatists in the Niger Delta more than 10 years ago.

   

The public relations crisis over Nigeria last came to a head in 1995, when Shell was linked by international campaigners to the military government's execution of author and activist Ken Saro-Wiwa.

   

But as recently as January this year the charity Christian Aid criticised the firm for slow and inadequate oil spill clean-ups, badly thought-through education, health and infrastructure projects that never got off the ground. 

 

The NGO also criticised Shell for for making "stay-at-home" payments to Nigerian youths in an attempt to keep them from disrupting its activities.