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The Australian: Kidnapped oil workers released

From correspondents in Lagos
January 30, 2006
NIGERIAN separatist militants released four Western oil workers today, after holding them hostage in the swamps of the Niger Delta for almost three weeks.
The men – an American, a Briton, a Bulgarian and a Honduran – were handed over to the Bayelsa state government, spokesman Welson Ekiyor said by telephone from the state capital Yenagoa.
Today's release will come as a relief to those working in Africa's largest oil industry, which is reeling from a three-week series of violent attacks that has left 22 members of the security forces and three Nigerian workers dead.
“They've been released. They're with the governor right now. They're very OK,” Mr Ekiyor said.
The British embassy and the oil giant Shell said they were checking the report.
On January 11, a heavily armed ethnic Ijaw militia riding speed boats boarded an oil industry supply vessel and captured four crew members. The vessel, Liberty Service, was working for the energy giant Shell off the coast of Bayelsa.
The boat's US skipper, Patrick Landry, British security expert Nigel Watson-Clark and engineers Milko Nichev of Bulgaria and Harry Ebanks of Honduras were held hostage for nearly three weeks in Ijaw areas of the Niger Delta.
The hostage-takers issued statements demanding that the Nigerian government release two prominent Ijaw leaders from jail and that Shell pay $US1.5 billion ($2 billion) in compensation to villages polluted by oil spills.
There was no initial information as to what kind of a deal, if any, had been struck with the kidnappers to secure the men's release.
On the same day as the hostages were taken, militants blew up Shell's Trans-Ramos pipeline. Four days later, they stormed the firm's Benisede oil flow station, killed 14 soldiers and two oilmen, and burned down buildings.
Then on January 24, gunmen wearing camouflage fatigues and armed with AK-47 Kalashnikov assault rifles stormed an office and workshop complex run by the Italian oil firm ENI in the southern oil city of Port Harcourt.
The unidentified gang killed seven serving policemen, one retired officer seconded to the firm as a security guard and a company accountant, before escaping on speed boats with a large haul of cash.
Two days ago, in an almost identical attack, gunmen scared off the police protecting the Korean engineering company Daewoo's oil services centre outside Port Harcourt and stole $US307,000 ($410,000) in cash.
Nigeria has been producing oil for five decades, longer than it has been an independent country, but most profits from the multi-billion dollar sector end up in the pockets of multinationals and corrupt government officials.
According to the World Bank, more than three quarters of Nigerians live in abject poverty on less than one dollar per day.
The Niger Delta, a Scotland-sized swathe of coastal swamp and mangrove forest dotted with oil wells and criss-crossed by pipelines, is home to several well-armed illegal militias fighting for a greater share of oil revenues.

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