Authorities seek release of hostages

Nigerian authorities were seeking to negotiate the safe release Sunday of nine foreign workers who were taken hostage during the latest wave of violence to rock Africa’s biggest oil industry.

Heavily armed separatist militants carried out a series of attacks on Saturday around Shell’s Forcados oil terminal, blowing up two pipelines, setting fire to a tanker loading platform and seizing expatriate staff.
Then, in the latest example of the impunity with which the ethnic Ijaw guerrillas can operate despite the presence of hundreds of government troops, the gang whisked their nine captives off into the creeks of the Niger Delta.

“They’re all well so far,” the kidnapper’s spokesman told AFP in an email in response to a question about the hostages’ condition.

“There were no more attacks last night but any time from now we will resume our attacks on chosen locations around the Niger Delta,” he added.

Following the assault, the Anglo-Dutch energy giant announced that it was suspending exports from the 380,000-barrel-per-day Forcados terminal, which handles 15 percent of Nigeria’s oil, and evacuating an offshore field.

“President Olusegun Obasanjo wishes to assure all stakeholders in the region that everything possible is being done to secure the speedy release of the hostages through dialogue,” Information Minister Frank Nweke said.

The captives’ employer, the US engineering firm and Shell subcontractor Willbros, confirmed that three Americans, two Egyptians, two Thais and one Filipino were taken hostage in a raid on their pipeline-laying barge.

Britain also confirmed that one of its nationals, John Hudspith, was taken. An oil industry source told AFP that he was a security expert working for a private firm under contract to Willbros.

A US State Department spokesman confirmed the kidnapping of the three US citizens. “We call for their unconditional release,” he said.

“Thailand has asked the Nigerian government to speed up negotiations with the rebel group and try to end the situation peacefully,” Thai foreign ministry spokesman Sihasak Puangketkeow said in Bangkok.

Puangketkeow identified the Thai nationals Arak Suwama and Sonsak Mhadmho, names which also appear on a list of the hostages released by the kidnappers.

Last month the militia, which dubs itself the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), abducted four other oil workers. They were later released unharmed after 19 days as prisoners in the delta swamp.

This time, however, the kidnappers warned the hostages might not be so lucky.

“I cannot say for how long we will keep these hostages or any motivating factor for their release except for the meeting of our conditions. These hostages will not be treated as well as the previous ones,” MEND said.

The group, in a statement sent to AFP, said that it had renewed its demand that Shell pay 1.5 billion dollars (1.2 billion euros) in compensation to Ijaw fishing communities whose waters have beenpolluted by oil.

The militants also demand the release of two jailed Ijaws, separatist warlord Mujahid Dokubo Asari and ousted Bayelsa State governor Diepreye Alamieyeseigha, who is accused of embezzling hundreds of millions of dollars.

Nigeria’s government dismisses the rebels’ claim to represent the 14-million-strong Ijaw tribe in its struggle for a greater share of oil revenues, and accuses the gang of stealing oil from pipelines and smuggling it abroad.

Last week a government helicopter gunship fired on and destroyed several oil barges hidden in the delta creeks, which it said were used by the smugglers. In a second raid it came under fire from the gang’s military-strength arsenal.

But, while condemning the rebels’ attempt to “criminally enrich themselves from stealing the nations’ resources”, Nweke stopped short of threatening a military response, instead urging the kidnappers to mend their ways.

“Government advises the so-called militants and hostage-takers in the Niger Delta to abandon their criminal activities in the overall interest of their people,” he said.

Shell’s production was already down by 106,000 barrels per day when the latest violence broke out because last month the company closed four of its oil flow stations in the western delta because of security fears.

Saturday’s evacuation of the EA offshore field cuts output by a further 115,000 barrels of oil per day.

The Niger Delta, a 70,000 square kilometre (27,000 square mile) swathe of swampland and mangrove, produces 2.6 million barrels per day, but most people in the region live in grinding poverty and resentment of government is high.

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