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The Wall Street Journal: Gunmen Kill One Hostage Taken From Italian Oil Vessel in Nigeria

November 22, 2006 6:16 p.m.

International oil companies may be forced to drastically alter operational procedures in the violence-wracked waters off Nigeria after a British oil worker was killed Wednesday during an apparent hostage-rescue operation by the Nigerian military.

While kidnappings of foreign oil workers have become commonplace here, most incidents have been resolved peacefully. Kidnappings have ratcheted up sharply this year. The captives are usually freed after concessions are made to various groups, either by the oil companies or the government or both. Ransoms have also increasingly been paid to win the release of hostages, according to security analysts.

But a bold offshore attack Wednesday against Italian oil giant Eni SpA — and its deadly outcome — dramatically increases the security risks for companies operating here, and it may force oil companies to scale down operations even more than they have already.

For Eni, the attack comes just a few days after settling another standoff in the region. Earlier this week, Eni said a two-week armed siege at its Tebidada oil pumping station ended peacefully and the company resumed an output of 50,000 barrels per day. The facility, located in Bayelsa state, had been occupied Nov. 6 by a group of militants and villagers who took 48 Nigerian staff members hostage, seeking compensation from the company for oil spills. Several hostages escaped and some were released.

The attacks this year have been at times a significant constraint on global oil production. Nigeria is one of the world’s largest oil producers, with output of about 2.5 million barrels a day. While the country’s deepwater offshore fields have been producing more oil in recent years, the country’s onshore and shallow-water offshore output has been continually hobbled by attacks. Royal Dutch Shell PLC, the country’s largest operator, has had to shutter a big chunk of production for much of the year.

More recently, assailants have ventured further out to sea to stage attacks. Wednesday’s kidnapping took place aboard an oil-production vessel about 30 miles off Nigeria’s southern coast.

While most recent attacks have ended peacefully, not all have. In 2004, two foreign and five Nigerian subcontractors of Chevron Corp. died when their boat was ambushed in the mangrove swamps and creeks of the Niger Delta. Last August, a Nigerian hostage was killed during a botched rescue attempt by the Nigerian navy. Several Nigerian security-service officers and attackers have also died in this year’s violence.

Details about Wednesday’s overnight attack weren’t completely clear. About 10 armed men attacked the vessel, which belonged to an Eni subsidiary, and took seven people away on a speedboat, grabbing two Finnish citizens along with an Italian, a Filipino, a U.K. citizen, a Polish citizen and a Romanian, according to company officials.

During a rescue attempt Wednesday, one of the oil workers was killed, along with two kidnappers and a soldier, Nigerian and Eni officials said. Eni said in a statement that “during an attempt by the Nigerian Navy to free the seven hostages taken from the FPSO Mystras ship, there was an exchange of fire during which one hostage was killed and the remaining six, including one wounded one, were freed and taken to a safe place.”

Britain’s Foreign Office confirmed the slain hostage was a British citizen, but declined to identify the worker further. The Finnish Foreign Ministry in Helsinki confirmed that two Finns were among those freed, but gave no other details.

In all, 25 foreign workers and nearly 60 Nigerian employees had been aboard the vessel belonging to a subsidiary of Eni that was attacked, Eni said in a statement. A private security contractor said that nearly all those on the vessel were held at gunpoint for a period before the attackers left with the seven captives.

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