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AP Worldstream: Nigerian militants release six foreign oil-worker hostages; three still in captivity

OSMOND CHIDI
Mar 02, 2006
Militants have released six foreign oil workers they deemed “low value,” but held on to two Americans and one Briton and threatened crippling new attacks aimed at cutting off all oil production in Nigeria.
American Macon Hawkins, who turned 69 Wednesday, was the first to be released, set free in the presence of foreign journalists visiting the West African nation's swampy delta region. Militants said in an e-mailed statement afterward that the aging diabetic was freed “on account of his age and poor health.”
Hours later, he joined five other frazzled-looking former captives _ two Egyptians, two Thais and one Filipino _ at the offices of James Ibori, governor of the restive southern Delta State.
A militant spokesman confirmed two other Americans and a Briton were still being held. The nine were kidnapped on Feb. 18 from a barge in the southern Niger Delta. The spokesman referred to the freed hostages as “low-value” and said they came from countries “without interests in the oil industry.”
The militants, who claim to be fighting for a greater share of oil wealth on behalf of an impoverished population, warned more violence was likely to strike Africa's biggest crude producer.
Nigeria usually exports 2.5 million barrels daily and is the United States' fifth-largest supplier. A spate of militant attacks on pipelines and other oil facilities has already cut oil production by 20 percent.
“We demand the intervention of a neutral arbiter in the resolution of this conflict and reiterate our objective of totally destroying the ability of the Nigerian government to export crude oil it has stolen from the Niger Delta over the past 50 years,” the militant statement said. “We will commence with attacks in another area of the Niger Delta with an aim to ensuring the total discontinuation of export of onshore crude oil.”
Militants handed Hawkins to surprised journalists visiting the fighters in the creeks and waterways of oil-rich southern Nigeria. The reporters took the calm but bedraggled oil industry worker to the Nigerian military.
Hawkins said he celebrated his birthday in captivity with a warm soft drink and was looking forward to cleaning up.
“I had a warm Sprite this morning but I'm looking forward to a hot shower with some shampoo, some underarm deodorant and a razor,” Hawkins said. He said he bore his captors no ill will.
“I have no animosity toward them at all,” he added. “I've seen their little villages, they're dirt poor, poor as field mice.”
Hawkins and the other workers were seized by militants from the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta from a barge owned by their employer, Houston-based oil services company Willbros Group Inc., which was laying pipeline for oil giant Royal Dutch Shell.
Hawkins, shown to another group of reporters while still in captivity on Friday, said he was diabetic but that he was receiving his medication in captivity.
Militant groups have attacked Nigeria's oil industry for years and hostage takings are commonplace. Most are released unharmed, as were four hostages taken in a similar kidnapping earlier this year.
The militants said Hawkins was released “with a stern warning not to return to the Niger Delta unless as a visitor.” The other oil workers remain in Nigeria “at their peril,” they said.
The militants reiterated demands that the government release two of their region's leaders from prison, while demanding a greater share of proceeds from the oil pumped from beneath their southern lands, which remain deeply impoverished. The government has dismissed the militants as criminals.

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