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THE NEW YORK TIMES: US and British Hostages Freed in Nigeria

By REUTERS
WARRI, Nigeria (Reuters) – Nigerian militants freed three foreign oil workers on Monday after five weeks in captivity and said their fighters would now focus on crippling oil exports from the world's eighth largest supplier.
The three men, two Americans and one Briton, were handed to the governor of Nigeria's southern Delta state by an ethnic Ijaw leader who had been asked to negotiate with the militants.
“(The three) are in very good health and high spirits,'' said Abel Oshevire, a spokesman for Delta state.
The freed men — Cody Oswald and Russel Spell of the United States and John Hudspith of Britain — were transferred to embassy officials who took them for medical checks.
“John's release has come as a huge relief for all his family,'' the Hudspith family said in a statement.
The rebel Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) had demanded as conditions for their freedom more local autonomy over the delta's oil wealth, the release of two jailed Ijaw leaders and compensation for oil pollution.
However, on Monday they said the release was unconditional. They said kidnapping had tied up hundreds of fighters who would be better used to extend a three-month campaign of sabotage against oil pipelines and platforms that has already cut a quarter off Nigeria's 2.4 million barrels per day output.
“Care for these hostages tied down close to 800 of our fighters (who) would be put to better use attacking oil facilities,'' they said in a statement.
President Olusegun Obasanjo is due to fly to Washington on Tuesday and pressure had been building up for an end to the standoff over the hostages.
WAVE OF ATTACKS
MEND militants originally captured nine foreign oil workers on February 18 during a wave of attacks on oil facilities, but six were released on March 1.
It was the second bout of kidnapping and attacks by the previously unknown group since January.
The raids have forced oil companies to cut 630,000 barrels a day of oil production in the OPEC member nation, and MEND has previously threatened to cut another million barrels a day with a major attack this month.
Royal Dutch Shell, which has been worst hit by the attacks, said it would not resume normal operations until it was safe to do so. It said it was particularly concerned about the environmental impact of the crisis, which has prevented workers from assessing spills, effecting repairs and cleaning them up.
Ijaw activists have been working behind the scenes to resolve the three-month-old crisis, and some saw the release as a possible first step in that direction.
“Now that MEND have shown good faith, it is of utmost urgency that we move to the dialogue table to discuss the issues raised,'' said Oronto Douglas, an Ijaw activist nominated by MEND to mediate talks with the government.
“If the issues they proposed are discussed with a view to the attainment of justice, it will lead to a final resolution of the matter,'' he told Reuters by telephone.
The majority of people in the delta have seen few benefits from decades of oil extraction that has yielded billions of dollars in profits for the government and foreign oil companies.
Vast areas of the delta are not connected to the national power grid. There is no clean water in many places. There are few roads. Teachers and doctors are in short supply.
The environment has been wrecked by oil spills and the constant burning of gas associated with the extraction of oil.
Militants, often armed and funded with the proceeds of crude oil theft, roam the mangrove-lined waterways of the vast delta in speedboats. Ethnic warfare, piracy and extortion are rife.
Analysts say Nigerian governments, during almost three decades of military dictatorship as well as during periods of civilian rule, have seen it as being in their interests to control the oil by keeping the delta poor, divided and insecure.

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