Deadlock as oil hostages start third week in Niger Delta swamps

Two US oil workers and a British security expert began their third week as hostages in the swamps of southern Nigeria as talks to secure their release appeared deadlocked.

The captives — Americans Cody Oswald, (left,) and Russel Spell, (right,) and Britain’s John Hudspith — were kidnapped along with six colleagues on February 18, during a series of attacks on oil installations by separatist guerrillas.

Their fellow hostages were released last week, but the ethnic Ijaw rebel fighters have vowed to hold on to the remaining oilmen and to step up their attacks, with the aim of shutting down Africa’s biggest oil industry.

Already, the energy giant Shell has been forced to slash Nigeria’s crude oil exports by around 20 percent, forcing up prices on the world market, and the insurgents have promised more and more violent raids in coming days.

In an email to AFP on Sunday, a spokesman for the self-styled Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) said the group would no longer seek to kidnap hostages but would instead shoot to kill.

“We will concentrate our scarce resources on very soft targets which will cause great embarrassment to the Nigerian government and convince the oil companies and their workers of the need to leave the Niger Delta.

“All units have henceforth been instructed to take no hostages under any circumstance,” the anonymous spokesman said.

“Due to the number of soldiers now guarding oil facilities, our attacks will be of commensurate force. Anything and everything standing in our way will be wiped out,” he said.

Meanwhile, government officials insisted that talks on the release of the hostages were making progress. “We hope that this nightmare will soon be over,” said Abel Oshevire, spokesman for Delta State Governor James Ibori.

But the head of a group that claims to be able to speak for the kidnappers, the Federated Niger Delta Ijaw Communities (FNDIC), said progress would not be made until government addressed the delta’s broader political crisis.

“The frame of reference should be widened to include the Niger Delta question,” said FNDIC president Oboko Bello, a former militant leader who is now working closely with Ibori in his effort to negotiate with the kidnappers.

“Right now the government seems to have only the release of the hostages as its mandate. We want a firm commitment by the federal government that all issues can be discussed, which is the only panacea for peace,” he added.

Groups like FNDIC and the newer MEND, which claimed the kidnapping and recent armed attacks, argue that the delta’s 14 million ethnic Ijaws should have a bigger stake in the region’s multi-billion-dollar oil industry.

But the federal government has shown no sign of wanting to discuss the broader economic and political context of the kidnapping.

At a meeting in Washington last week, oil minister Edmund Daukoru dismissed the militants’ threats as “just a negotiating position. It’s talk.”

“There appear to be genuine sentiments, anxious to see faster development of the Niger Delta area, but those sentiments have clearly been hijacked by small-time crooks who have made good business stealing crude oil,” he said.

Nigeria is Africa’s biggest oil exporter, producing 2.6 million barrels of crude per day, but the latest attacks have forced Shell to close down its Forcados oil export terminal and evacuate the EA offshore field.

Both these targets are in the western delta near the oil city of Warri, but the militants have threatened to shift their focus to even larger facilities in the eastern delta swamps south of Port Harcourt.

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