Nigerian militants who last week abducted nine foreign oil workers, including three Americans, demanded Friday that their government commit to jump-starting development in their chronically poor, southern region, which derives little apparent benefit from its vast oil fields.
“We are not troublemaking people,” one of the militants told a group of reporters, “but if they want trouble, we will give them trouble.”
The militants allowed one of the American hostages to speak to the journalists. Despite the weaponry arrayed around him, Macon Hawkins, 68, of Kosciusko, Tex., appeared to be in good spirits and said he and the other hostages were safe. But he urged President Bush and the United Nations to help resolve the increasingly violent standoff between the Nigerian government and the people of this restive area.
“They get nothing out of the oil, and they produce all of the oil,” Hawkins said of the Niger Delta residents. “They’re tired of it, so they’re going to fight, and they’re going to fight until death.”
He added, “Tell President Bush we want to get this thing settled.”
Hawkins joked with the journalists about the group’s conditions in captivity, which include air-conditioned rooms to sleep in and noodles for meals. He said he had been provided with medicine to control his diabetes and that the other eight hostages were being treated so well they were getting “fat and sassy.”
“All is well,” he said. “I just hope it ends well.”
The militants, who declined to give their names, arrived at the meeting on the water near this riverside village in several powerboats and wearing camouflaged tops, black hoods and colorful pieces of cloth tied around their arms. Many people in this region believe the cloth strips protect wearers against attacks.
In addition to belt-fed machine guns and Kalashnikov assault rifles, the militants had rocket-propelled grenade launchers. As they approached, they made a series of dramatic circling maneuvers and encouraged journalists, who were in two boats of their own, to take pictures as the white flags of the militants’ movement whipped in the breeze.
Gunmen abducted the nine oil workers — three Americans, two Thais, two Egyptians, a Briton and a Filipino — from a barge on Feb. 18. All were working for Willbros Group Inc., an oil services company headquartered in Panama. The attack came just weeks after four other foreign oil workers, including one American, were released after 19 days in captivity.
A newly emergent militant group, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, has asserted responsibility for those kidnappings and also for attacks on oil installations that have cut the country’s exports by 20 percent. Nigeria, which normally exports 2.5 million barrels a day, is the fifth-largest supplier of oil to the United States.
The militants complained bitterly about conditions in the Niger Delta, an area that has had little development in decades despite being home to the oil that provides the bulk of the nation’s foreign export earnings. The delta has a marked shortage of schools, hospitals, roads, bridges and sources of clean water. It was part of the southeastern region that sought to break away from Nigeria during the 1967-70 Biafran war.
The militants said they would not release the hostages until a new agreement to develop the region was in place and had been witnessed by Bush.
“We are fighting for justice,” one of the men said. “We, the Niger Delta people, are fighting for our rights.”
They called for the Nigerian military to abandon the area and for the government to release two of the region’s leaders: Mujahid Dokubo-Asari, who was jailed on charges of treason in September, and a former state governor, Diepreye Alamieyeseigha, who was arrested in Britain on money laundering charges last year but fled to Nigeria, where he was rearrested.
Hawkins, white-haired and wearing a checked, button-down shirt, appeared almost jovial. He noted that his birthday was approaching on March 1 and spoke with seeming contentment of the rhythms of life as a hostage.
“We’re always looking forward to teatime,” he said with a smile.
The men guarding Hawkins interrupted him only once, after reporters asked him to describe his capture. He began describing a scene at an oil barge, but a man wielding a rocket-propelled grenade launcher began yelling at him angrily, and Hawkins stopped.
A few minutes later, though, he seemed relaxed again, sipping from a box of orange juice. When asked what he would say to his wife back home in Texas, Hawkins replied, “I hope I see her soon.”