January 13 2010 at 12:41AM
Lagos – Gunmen on Tuesday seized three Britons and a Colombian, shooting dead their police escort in the first major kidnapping for six months in southern Nigeria’s Niger Delta.
The four – contract workers for the Anglo-Dutch oil giant Shell – were abducted as they travelled to work from the southern oil city of Port Harcourt to the Shell-operated Afam power plant, police said.
“They were ambushed by gunmen,” around the small town of Obehi, said Rivers State police spokesperson Rita Abbey, adding that police were concentrating their search in and around that town.
The town is about halfway between Port Harcourt and Aba, the workers intended destination, situated 50km north-east of Port Harcourt.
The gunmen shot dead the police officer escorting the group and wounded their driver.
A Shell spokesperson in Nigeria said: “We are concerned for the safety of the contractor staff and our thoughts are with them and their families at this difficult time.”
A spokesperson for the Foreign Office in Britain said: “We are aware of the reports that three British nationals have been kidnapped in Nigeria and are urgently investigating these claims.”
The incident was the first major kidnapping in southern Nigeria since July last year, following a lull in the wake of a government amnesty which saw thousands of militants lay down their arms.
Armed groups claiming to seek a fairer share of oil revenue for locals have since 2006 staged attacks on oil installations in the Niger Delta, playing havoc with crude output and international oil prices.
The main rebel group in the restive region, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) said it had “no hand” in the abduction of the workers.
No known ransom demands have been made.
In October MEND declared an open-ended ceasefire to give dialogue with authorities a chance.
But at the weekend, MEND said it was “reviewing its indefinite ceasefire announced on Sunday, October 9, 2009 and will announce its position on or before January 30, 2010”.
The absence of President Umaru Yar’Adua for nearly two months for medical reasons has not helped efforts to end the violence with militants reportedly unhappy at the slow progress of the process to re-integrate them into their communities.
“The president’s absence has certainly jeopardised the entire peace process because there is no structure,” a MEND spokesperson told reporters.
Hundreds of foreign and local oil workers have been kidnapped in the Niger Delta since 2006. Many have been released unharmed, others after ransom payments.
Last year Shell said 133 of its workers and contractors had been kidnapped between 2006 and 2008.
Militants have also attacked pipelines and offshore facilities and even Lagos harbour. At the weekend, militants targeted Chevron pipelines in a second such attack since the government’s unconditional pardon came into effect in August last year.
At the peak of the violence in the Delta, production dipped by up to a third of pre-2006 levels in the world’s eighth largest oil exporter.
Oil is the economic mainstay of Nigeria, raking in some 95 percent of the country’s earnings and contributing about 85 percent of budget requirements for the OPEC member country.
Nigeria plans to offer inhabitants of the nine oil-producing states an extra 10 percent of oil and gas revenues, in addition to the 13 percent they already get, in a bid to end violence.
In the wake of the Niger Delta kidnappings, the chief executive officer of Shell, Peter Voser, said Tuesday it no longer looks to Nigeria to support corporate growth.
“Nigeria is still a heartland for Shell,” he said on Shell’s website.
“But we no longer depend on it for our growth aspirations. This gives us more flexibility in deciding when and how to develop oil and gas resources in Nigeria.” – AFP