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THE NEW YORK TIMES: U.S. And British Hostages Freed in Nigeria

Published: March 27, 2006
Filed at 0:49 a.m. ET
WARRI, Nigeria (Reuters) – Three foreign oil workers, two Americans and a Briton, were freed on Monday by Nigerian militants who had held them hostage for five weeks, officials said.
The release of the three, employees of U.S. oil services company Willbros, raised hopes for an end to three months of sabotage and kidnapping in the world's eighth largest oil exporting country that has cut shipments by a quarter.
The three men were handed to the governor of Nigeria's southern Delta state by an ethnic Ijaw leader, who had been negotiating with the militants on behalf of the government. U.S. and British diplomatic staff took the men for medical checks.
“(The three) are in very good health and high spirits,'' said Abel Oshevire, a spokesman for Delta state. “Of course, they are a bit agitated after a month in captivity.''
The rebel Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) had demanded a greater share of the region's huge oil wealth, the release of two jailed Ijaw leaders and compensation for oil pollution as conditions for freeing the hostages.
It was not immediately clear what produced the breakthrough, but 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.
MEND militants originally captured nine foreign oil workers on February 18 during a wave of attacks on oil facilities, but released six of them earlier this month. It was the second bout of kidnapping by the group since January.
The militant attacks followed a military assault on communities in Delta state that the government accused of involvement in oil theft. The military commander who ordered the assault has since been removed.
Militants had threatened to stage another major attack on oil facilities this month with the aim of cutting another one million barrels a day of exports.
“I hope the federal government will cease all attacks and will not try to arrest anyone,'' said Dimieari Von Kemedi, Ijaw activist and head of the Our Niger Delta non-governmental group.
“I also hope MEND realizes that the issues raised are now being handled as a top priority and there is no need for further attacks as that would be counter-productive to dialogue.''
MEND has yet to comment on the freeing of the hostages.
Militants, often armed and funded with the proceeds of crude oil theft, roam the mangrove-lined waterways of the delta in speedboats.
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 foreign oil companies and corrupt politicians. Authorities often dismiss militants as thieves.
Vast areas of the delta are not connected to the national power grid. There is no clean water in many places. There are almost no roads. Teachers and doctors are in short supply.
The environment has been wrecked by oil spills and the 24-hour burning of gas associated with the extraction of oil.
Mnay 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.
Royal Dutch Shell and other companies on the western side of the delta have shut about 556,000 barrels a day of oil output, most of which is exported through the Forcados tanker terminal, which was damaged in the February attacks.
Officials say they expect to be able to restore most of the oil production within two weeks if peace returns to the delta.

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