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Reuters: Group threatens to keep hostages for years

LAGOS, Nigeria – Ethnic militants holding four foreign oil workers hostage in the Niger Delta threatened on Sunday to keep them for years if necessary and repeated demands for Nigeria to free two Ijaw leaders.
The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, which has crippled a tenth of Nigeria’s oil supply, promised fresh attacks in the region and on “soft targets” across Nigeria if President Olusegun Obasanjo did not free the two men.
“In countries such as Colombia, hostages are kept for years. We can do (the) same,” said an e-mail from the militants, who abducted the captives 11 days ago from a Royal Dutch Shell offshore oilfield.
The Ijaw group, which demands local control over Nigeria’s oil heartland, has made the release of militant leader Mujahid Dokubo-Asari and former Bayelsa state governor Diepreye Alamieyeseigha its key demand.
“If Asari and Alamieyeseigha are not released as we have expected, we will escalate attacks in the Niger Delta and extend them to soft targets around the country,” the statement said. “Attacks on such facilities will be aimed at crippling economic activity.”
Many fuel storage facilities across Nigeria offered no resistance to assault, said the group, which has also warned truckers not to drive petroleum tankers or face violence.
Dozens of people have been killed in well-organized raids by the heavily armed militia and oil unions have threatened to withdraw their workers if the situation worsens.
The campaign has already helped push world oil prices to four month highs and analysts say the political aims of the militants means unrest may escalate before 2007 elections.
Hostages said to be in good health
A spokesman for the Bayelsa state government, coordinating the response to the attacks, said authorities had received a photograph of the hostages and assurances that the American, Briton, Honduran and Bulgarian were all in good health.
In a telephone call to Reuters on Thursday the captives had complained of diarrhea and fatigue from constant movement in the humid mangrove swamps. American Patrick Landry, who suffers from high blood pressure, was particularly ill, they said.
“We are making progress. We hope the hostages will be released in the next few days,” said the spokesman.
The militants, darting by motor boat around the maze of tidal creeks in Nigeria’s extreme south, said on Saturday they had not yet opened talks with anyone and insisted the government must negotiate directly with the two jailed Ijaw leaders.
Alamieyeseigha, impeached last month for money-laundering after escaping arrest in Britain, is a political foe of the president and a major scalp in his war on corruption. Asari is on trial for treason after leading a bloody insurgency in 2004.
“Each man has a serious court case pending over his head … I would be extremely surprised if the government agreed to free them,” said Mosto Onuoha, professor at the University of Nigeria. “The government is in a difficult position.”
The militants are also seeking $1.5 billion from Shell in compensation to villages for oil spills. Even if this is paid, the group has said it will continue its attacks, focusing on other operators.
So far, Royal Dutch Shell is the only oil major to say it has suffered during the group’s month-long campaign of violence. It has cut its production by 210,000 barrels a day and pulled out 500 staff. Hundreds of contractors have also fled.
France’s Total and Italy’s Agip, a unit of ENI, have both denied militant claims they were attacked.

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