KIDNAPPERS RELEASE PICTURE OF HOSTAGES

Nigerian security officials on Friday released a photograph of four western hostages which had been passed to them by separatist militants, 16 days after the oil workers were taken prisoner.

The image, believed to be several days old, shows the four men sitting on plastic chairs in a grove of oil palms and guarded by three guerrilla fighters, at least one of whom is armed with an assault rifle.

It is the first evidence that the men are being properly treated since January 19, when they were allowed to call their employers. Nigerian agents released it to the newspaper The Punch, which passed it to AFP.

The picture shows British security expert Nigel Watson-Clark, Honduran engineer Harry Ebanks, US boat skipper Patrick Landry and their Bulgarian colleague Milko Nichev.

Three of the men are wearing shorts and polo shirts, while Nichev sports blue overalls. Each has a bottle containing orange liquid set in the sand before their chair and all appear to be uninjured.

They were captured on January 11 by an armed gang of ethnic Ijaw militants which stormed the oil supply vessel Liberty Service as it worked for the energy giant Shell in an Atlantic offshore field.

The gang has demanded 1.5 billion dollars (1.2 billion euros) from Shell to compensate Ijaw communities polluted by the oil industry and the release of two local ethnic leaders being held by Nigerian authorities.

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