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The New York Times: Four Oil Workers Freed in Nigeria

By REUTERS
Published: August 15, 2006
Filed at 5:14 p.m. ET

PORT HARCOURT, Nigeria (Reuters) – Two Norwegian and two Ukrainian oil workers being held hostage in Nigeria were freed on Tuesday as the government promised to crack down on a surge in unrest in Africa’s largest oil producer.

About 16 foreign oil workers have been kidnapped in five separate abductions in the past two weeks in the oil-producing Niger Delta. Nine have been released.

“We are going to be firm and say no to violence and hostage-taking. Wherever we find hostage-takers now, we will hunt them down. We will not accept this any longer,” President Olusegun Obasanjo said in a statement after meeting security chiefs and political leaders from the delta.

He ordered the military and police to meet criminals in the delta “force for force,” and directed them to start round-the-clock patrols of the creeks.

He also threatened to sanction companies caught paying ransoms, a practice which analysts say has fueled the violence.

The Norwegian and Ukrainian oil workers released on Tuesday were taken a week earlier from a ship servicing an offshore oil rig operated by Peak Petroleum, in partnership with Equator Exploration.

Peak is in dispute with a local community over jobs and other benefits.

“The hostages have been released and they are looking well,” said state government official Victor Akenge.

The four men were released after Peak struck an agreement to include the community in their benefits package, with the blessing of the local government, authorities said.

POLICY CHANGE

The threat to clamp down on kidnapping appeared to signal a change in the government’s stance toward a recent upsurge in violence in its southern oil heartland.

A series of attacks and kidnappings at the beginning of the year by a new militant group demanding more local control over the delta’s oil wealth prompted Obasanjo to set up a committee to inject new investment into the neglected region.

Those attacks forced Royal Dutch Shell to shut about 500,000 barrels per day of oil production, almost a quarter of the capacity of the OPEC member nation.

Many abductions are motivated by ransom, but some recent incidents have taken on a political tone, with demands reflecting a growing ethnic nationalism among the Ijaw tribe, native to the Niger Delta.

Criminal gangs, sometimes involved in the large-scale theft of crude oil from pipelines, also regularly indulge in kidnapping and extortion, and it is often difficult to distinguish between the two.

Violence is fueled by widespread feelings of injustice in the Niger Delta where most people live in poverty despite the wealth being pumped from their ancestral lands.

A previous crackdown on militants in the delta in February led to an escalation in violence, and triggered the attacks that shut Shell’s operations in the western delta.

In the latest abduction on Sunday, armed men snatched at least five foreign workers — two Britons, a German, an Irishman and a Pole — from the nightclub in the southern oil city of Port Harcourt shortly before midnight.

An American citizen has also been kidnapped, but it was not clear if it was in the same incident.

The United States embassy said the nightclub attack represented a significant escalation and advised its citizens not to travel to the delta, and to avoid public places.

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