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The Times: Mystery of £400,000 ransom as oil hostages are released

By Jonathan Clayton and Simon de Bruxelles
NIGERIAN separatist rebels yesterday released a British security contractor and three foreign oil workers taken hostage in Nigeria almost three weeks ago, but immediately vowed a fresh wave of attacks in the lawless, but oil-rich Delta area.
Nigel Watson-Clark, a former paratrooper employed by the British company Ecodrill as a security expert, and three others — an American, a Bulgarian and a Honduran — were handed over to the Bayelsa state government after 19 days in captivity.
A Foreign and Commonwaelth Office spokesman said: “The men are free, they are in the hands of Nigerian officials.” A British embassy official said that the men were as “well as could be hoped for”.
After medical checks the four men were flown to the capital, Abuja, to meet Olusegun Obasanjo, the Nigerian President, who has staked his reputation on bringing the militants to heel. It was not clear if a ransom was paid. One militant source, involved in previous kidnappings, said that more than £400,000 was paid, but the kidnappers denied the report, saying the men were released on humanitarian grounds. “Money normally changes hands. I can’t believe this did not happen this time,” a human rights activists in the region told The Times.
A hitherto unknown group calling itself the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (Mend) said that the action was taken as a “goodwill gesture to the international community”, but added that the attacks would continue. The group’s leader warned international companies of grave consequences if they continued to co-operate in the “criminal activities” of the Nigerian G overnment and singled out Britain for special mention.
“We the Ijaw and Niger Delta people want to remind the people of the world that Great Britain has facilitated the illegal, criminal and inhuman occupation and exploitation of our lands for 112 years,” said Mujahid Dokubo-Asari, the Mend leader, in a statement.
The arrest of Mr Asari, the self-styled Lord of the Creeks, two months ago triggered the current unrest in the Delta, a patchwork of dense swamps where the local people claim to have received no benefit from almost 50 years of oil and gas exploitation.
Shell, which evacuated some 260 staff from four oil installations in the area, said that it had no plans yet to return. Nigeria is Africa’s biggest oil exporter, producing 2.6 million barrels of crude per day. The attacks, in which at least 25 people have been killed, have cut production by one tenth and helped to push world oil prices to record highs. The four men were seized on January 11 when Ijaw militia boarded a supply vessel.
Mr Watson-Clark’s partner Briony Tomkies, a 35-year-old nurse from Saltford, near Bristol, said: “Nigel’s release has come as a huge relief for all his family. I spoke to him this morning and he seems OK, if a little shaken. But he told me that he was treated well by his captors and is in good spirits.”
Mr Watson-Clark is expected to be fully debriefed by both the Nigerian authorities and officials from the Foreign Office before returning home.
VIOLENCE IN THE DELTA
January 28 Armed robbers attack local offices of the South Korean firm Daewoo
January 15 One dead as Shell platform is attacked January 13 Bomb wrecks pipeline carrying 10 per cent of Shell’s daily output
January 11 Four foreign oil workers kidnapped (released yesterday); explosion damages crude oil pipeline
December 20, 2005 Main export pipeline bombed

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