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Reuters: Hopes rise for Nigerian hostages

By Daniel Flynn
ABUJA (Reuters) – Nigerian officials raised hopes a Briton and three foreign hostages could soon be released after receiving a recent photograph of the oil workers at a meeting on Sunday with a representative for the militants holding them.
The hostages were abducted from an offshore oilfield on January 11 by militants who have demanded the release of two ethnic Ijaw leaders and waged a month-long campaign of sabotage against oil facilities in the world's eighth largest exporter.
Diplomats were cautiously optimistic the photograph and meeting signified progress in the 11-day-old hostage crisis, but expressed some doubts about government assurances that it would be over within days.
“The (state) governor is saying that it should be resolved in 12 to 24 hours, but they have been saying the same thing for the last 10 days,” one diplomat said. “It sounds very good. It looks very positive, but I'm still suspicious.”
Another diplomat said he had been informed after the talks the hostages would be freed soon if the government promised no military reprisals against the militants, whose attacks have cut a tenth of Nigeria's oil output.
The militants have promised to carry out more attacks very shortly.
The photograph showed the hostages — an American, a Bulgarian and a Honduran as well as the Briton — in apparently good health and sporting beards, indicating it was taken recently, diplomats said.
A spokesman for the Bayelsa state government said authorities were using community leaders as go-betweens because the militants did not want to talk directly to authorities.
“We are making progress. We hope the hostages will be released in the next few days,” the spokesman said.
The hostages complained in a call to Reuters on Thursday of diarrhoea and fatigue from being constantly moved around the humid mangrove swamps.
The militants had threatened to kill all the hostages if U.S. hostage Patrick Landry, who was ill, died. Landry's health has apparently improved and the threat of execution has abated.
In an email sent before Sunday's meeting, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta said it could hold the hostages for years.
DEMANDS
The group's key demand is the release of militant leader Mujahid Dokubo-Asari and former Bayelsa state governor Diepreye Alamieyeseigha.
Oil unions have threatened to leave Nigeria's restive delta, which produces almost all the nation's oil, if the security situation deteriorates. Dozens of people have been killed in the well-organised raids and bombings by the militia.
The campaign has helped pushed world oil prices to four month highs and oil industry sources say the political aims of the militants mean unrest may last until elections next year.
An uprising before 2003 polls hit 40 percent of Nigeria's oil production.
“Even if the hostages are released, their demands cannot be met, so will they give up the attacks or carry on?” said a senior oil industry source.
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.
“I would be extremely surprised if the government agreed to free them,” said Mosto Onuoha, a professor at the University of Nigeria.
The militants are also seeking $1.5 billion (847 million pounds) from Royal Dutch Shell in compensation to villages for oil spills and more local control over the Niger Delta's oil wealth.
So far, Shell is the only oil major to say it has suffered. 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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