Nigerian agents hunting a gang which kidnapped four foreign workers interrogated three suspects Wednesday as the country’s huge oil industry reeled from the latest bloody attack on its facilities.

The kidnap — combined with a series of violent attacks on oil plants over the past three weeks that has left more than 20 dead –has raised tensions in Africa’s biggest oil producer and put pressure on world crude prices.

A spokesman for the Delta State government confirmed that federal officers had detained three men in the Niger Delta and brought them to the state capital Asaba to be questioned about the fate of the missing oilmen.

“One was detained yesterday and the other two on Monday. I think we are closing in on them, we are closing in on the kidnappers,” state spokesman Abel Oshevire told AFP by telephone from Asaba.

As he spoke the four hostages were beginning their third week as the prisoners of self-declared separatist militants at a secret location somewhere in the creeks and mangrove forests of the Niger Delta.

The group which has claimed responsibility for the kidnapping insisted that it has no links with the suspects held in Asaba, and repeated a warning that the hostages would not be returned until two ethnic Ijaw leaders are released.

“We gather these people were arrested for being unable to provide the hostages after they were paid,” said a statement sent to AFP from an e-mail address previously used by the militants.

It said the authorities and the oil giant Shell had mistakenly paid “agents such as these arrested persons, who lie about affiliations to our group and promise to secure the release of the hostages for a fee.”On January 11, armed ethnic Ijaw guerrillas boarded the Liberty Service, an oil industry supply vessel operated by a subcontractor
to the energy giant Shell, and captured four foreign workers. The boat’s American skipper, Patrick Landry, British security expert Nigel Watson-Clark, Bulgarian oil worker Milko Michev and Honduran engineer Harry Ebanks, have since been held hostage in the delta swamps.

Statements from the kidnappers have said the men will be held until the Nigerian government releases two ethnic Ijaw figures: guerrilla leader Mujahid Dokubo Asari and ousted state governor Diepreye Alamieyeseigha.

Asari is on trial for treason after threatening to bring down the Nigerian government, while Alamieyeseigha has been charged with corruption after being accused of embezzling hundreds of millions of dollars. In addition to taking the hostages, the group has mounted armed attacks on the oil facilities which produce Nigeria’s sole
significant export and on the government troops which guard them. On January 11 they blew up a major oil pipeline. Four days later, gunmen overran a Shell oil production plant at Benisede in the western delta and gunned down 14 soldiers and two Nigerian civilian staff.

Then, on Tuesday, several boatloads of fighters clad in camouflage fatigues and berets and toting assault rifles stormed an industrial complex run by the Italian oil major Agip in the delta city of Port Harcourt. The gang shot dead eight police officers and one Nigerian worker, seized a large sum of cash from a private Nigerian bank on
the premises, and made their escape back to the creeks surrounding the city.

“The bandits took several million naira (several thousand dollars / euros). They were very efficient, knew the layout of the area and seemed to know that the money had come in to pay salaries,” said Italian consul Maurizio Bungaro. Agip, a subsidiary of the Italian giant ENI, has temporarily evacuated its Port Harcourt base.

Since the start of the attacks, Nigeria’s oil output has been cut by 211,000 barrels per day, or more than eight percent. President Olusegun Obasanjo’s government has said it is seekinga “political solution” but seems to have made little progress.

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