* Nigerian fishermen, farmers seek damages
* Shell says three spills caused by sabotage
* Could clear way to more cases vs multinationals
(Adds link to graphic) By Ivana Sekularac and Anthony Deutsch
THE HAGUE, Oct 11 (Reuters) - Four Nigerian villagers tookRoyal Dutch Shell to court on Thursday in a landmarkpollution case that campaigners said could open the door to morecompensation claims against international companies.
The fishermen and farmers, together with the Friends of theEarth campaign group, accuse the oil major of polluting land andwaterways around their homes in the Niger Delta region ofAfrica's top energy producer.
Shell has denied responsibility, saying the leaks werecaused by sabotage.
The villagers launched their claim in a civil court in TheHague, where Shell has its joint global headquarters.
It was the first time a Dutch-registered company had beensued in a Dutch court for offences allegedly carried out by aforeign subsidiary.
Friends of the Earth said the claim, if successful, couldopen up a new way for plaintiffs to take on multinationals - bysuing their parent companies in their home countries.
The villagers, who appeared in court, want unspecifieddamages saying Shell and other corporations were responsible forpollution from three oil spills between 2004 and 2007.
"My community is a ghost land as a result of thedevastation. We had good vegetation. Today people haverespiratory problems and are getting sick," said one of theplaintiffs Eric Dooh, from the Goi community, which livesbetween two pipelines.
"Shell is aware of the whole devastation. I want them to paycompensation, to clean up the pollution so we can grow our cropsand fish again," the 44-year-old told Reuters before thehearing.
Shell says the pollution was caused by thieves breaking intopipelines to steal the oil, and believes it has played its partin cleaning it up.
"The matter has been resolved as far as we are concerned andwe do not properly understand why Friends of the Earth hassubmitted the case," Allard Castelein, Shell's vice presidentfor environment, told Reuters before the hearing.
The biggest pollution problem in the Niger Delta was causedby thieves who steal oil from Shell's installations, he said.Around 150,000 barrels of oil are stolen every day in the Delta.That is worth about $6 billion a year.
Friends of the Earth said other companies could face similarclaims in European Union cities if it won the case.
"It opens up a range of possibilities for people from poorcountries to use the legal system to seek compensation fromcompanies," said Geert Ritsema, international affairscoordinator at the environmental group during a break in theproceedings.
For graphic on Shell in Nigeria [http://link.reuters.com/bek33t]^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^>
The Nigerians' lawyer Channa Samkalden told the court Shellhad failed to maintain pipelines, clean up leaks and preventpollution.
"It was insufficient maintenance, not sabotage, that wasresponsible for the leaks ... Shell did not operate as aconscientious oil company," she said.
With around 31 million inhabitants, the Niger Delta is oneof the world's most important wetland and coastal marineecosystems. It is an important source of food for the poor,rural population.
Last year, the United Nations said in a report thegovernment and multinational oil companies, particularly Shell,were responsible for 50 years of oil pollution that haddevastated the Ogoniland region, part of the Niger Delta.
The government and oil firms have pledged to clean up theregion and other parts of the Delta, but residents say they haveseen little action.
Shell Petroleum Development Co (SPDC) is the largest oil andgas company in Nigeria, with production capacity of more than 1million barrels of oil equivalent per day.
It operates a joint venture in which state owned NigerianNational Petroleum Corp has a majority share. Total SAsubsidiary Elf Petroleum Nigeria Ltd. also has a stake.
Three judges are expected to deliver their verdict on theHague case in the new year.
(Editing by Andrew Heavens)
Keywords: SHELL NIGERIA/LAWSUIT