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Houston Chronicle: Nigerian rebels act before Obasanjo and Bush meet

March 28, 2006, 1:55AM
Copyright 2006 Houston Chronicle
THREE oil-field workers, including a Houston-area man, who were held for 38 days by a rebel group in Nigeria were freed early Monday, just in time for President Olusegun Obasanjo's meeting in Washington this week with President Bush.
An American official in Nigeria said the timing of the release is no coincidence.
The Nigerian leader and Bush already have a full slate of issues to confront when they meet on Wednesday, including oil supplies, genocide in Sudan and the push to bring Liberia's former president, Charles Taylor, who lives in exile in Nigeria, to justice before a United Nations-backed court in Sierra Leone.
U.S. Ambassador to Nigeria John Campbell had earlier hinted at the clouds gathering over the political powwow because of the hostage situation, which dragged on for more than five weeks.
“When my fellow countrymen are without their liberty, there are limits on what we can do,” Campbell said.
Abel Oshevire, a spokesman for the Rivers State Government, where the militant violence has been centered, said the hostage situation would have posed a problem for Obasanjo.
“Definitely, if the hostages were still in captivity, it would have been one of the knotty issues that would have confronted him,” he said.
Workers Russell Spell of Montgomery and Cody Oswalt of Jackson, Miss., along with Briton John Hudspith, were among nine Willbros employees kidnapped off a barge on Feb. 18. The oil service firm was doing work for Royal Dutch Shell.
Six other hostages, including Texan Macon Hawkins of Kosciusko, were released early this month.
The three remaining men were all winging their way home Monday, but Willbros, which runs operations out of Houston, was mum about what it took to gain their freedom. So was the U.S. Justice Department.
No ransom?
Delta State Gov. James Ibori told the Associated Press that no ransom was paid for the workers' freedom but added, “Now that they have been released, the pertinent issues raised by the youths on the Niger Delta condition will have to be addressed.”
The kidnappings by a new rebel group that has emerged in this impoverished region, dubbed the Movement for the Emancipation for the Niger Delta, or MEND, have jarred oil markets and worried energy companies working in Nigeria.
Publicly, the group has called for the release of ethnic Ijaw leaders from jail and demanded $1.5 billion in restitution from Royal Dutch Shell for years of environmental damage to the area. In February, a Nigerian court also ordered Shell, along with other oil companies, to pay up. Shell is appealing.
But the group's motivations are not so clear.
The Niger Delta has a long history of militant activism in the name of the poor who inhabit the region. Many foreign oil workers have been taken hostage in Nigeria. Most, though certainly not all, are released unharmed.
'We stand by them'
MEND appears to have a connection with an older group in the area called the Federated Niger Delta Ijaw Communities. That radical group has attacked oil installations before and kidnapped foreign workers, but some experts monitoring the situation have noted that when local subcontractors do not get paid work from companies like Shell or Chevron, the Federated group has attacked.
Kingsley Otuaro, a high-ranking official in the Federated group, said he could not speak for MEND but added: “All the things they do, we stand by them.”
Otuaro's half-brother is a subcontractor for Shell.
So far this year, MEND has kidnapped 13 foreign oil employees working on contracts for Shell, blown up an oil export terminal and sabotaged several pipelines. The attacks have shut down more than 600,000 barrels of oil production a day, about a quarter of Nigeria's output.
'A distraction to us'
In a statement to the Associated Press, MEND spokesman Jomo Gbomo said the release should not be taken as any indication that the oil industry is safe from future attacks.
“The keeping of hostages is a distraction to us,” he said in an e-mailed statement.
Shell spokeswoman Alexandra Wright said the company will not restart operations in the delta until worker safety can be guaranteed. She added that the company does want to assess environmental damage that the attacks on pipelines and the export terminal could have caused.
“We believe there should now be a period of calm and dialogue between all sides to ensure there are no future hostilities,” she said.
[email protected] Chronicle correspondent Katharine Houreld reported from Lagos, Nigeria.

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