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Financial Times: Oil hostage death sparks alarm at military strategy

By Dino Mahtaniin Johannesburg: Published: November 27 2006 02:00 | Last updated: November 27 2006 02:00

The death of a British oil worker taken hostage in Nigeria’s turbulent oil-producing delta region last week has shattered confidence in counter-militant strategies employed by Nigeria’s military.

Armed gunmen last week kidnapped seven foreign oil workers from a large facility off the coast of the Niger Delta. After they came across a naval patrol, a gun battle ensued, in which the Briton and at least two militants were killed and another expatriate seriously wounded.

Nigeria’s navy has presented the operation as a rescue mission, even claiming it was a success because only one of seven hostages was killed. But security analysts say the death of David Hunt, the first foreign oil worker to be killed in a hostage taking in Nigeria, demonstrates that attempts to counter attacks on the oil industry could put foreign oil workers at risk.

Many industry and security sources say last week’s clash was due to a chance encounter sparked by an escalation of naval patrols in the area.

Mr Hunt’s death could have far-reaching consequences for Nigeria’s oil industry. Insurance premiums for foreign oil workers have been escalating sharply this year, increasing companies’ operating costs.

The killing of a Nigerian oil worker in a botched hostage release three months ago, prompted Nigerian oil unions to threaten mass industrial action if they feel the government does not improve security.

Though oil unions rarely carry out such threats, hundreds of workers have been withdrawn from the delta after attacks on facilities.

Industry analysts fear that attacks and hostage takings could increase.

Many delta armed groups, created by politicians to help rig elections in 2003, are expected to step up their activities as they ahead of Nigeria’s national elections in April.

Militant attacks early this year forced the world’s eighth-largest oil exporter to shut a quarter of its output, while the number of kidnaps for ransom has escalated.

In response, Olusegun Obasanjo, Nigeria’s president, asked the military to meet militant activity “force for force”.

A top Nigerian security source told the Financial Times that the government’s priority was to protect oil facilities, as it is a major shareholder in multinational oil operations and the military is mandated to defend national assets.

The source said Nigerian security agencies were paying large sums of cash to obtain information from informants close to militants, to anticipate and repel militant attacks.

Industry and security sources said the strategy, which increases the likelihood of patrols chancing on militant operations, was working to some degree. This month, naval personnel repelled an attack on a facility run by Shell, Nigeria’s largest oil producer.

But industry sources said that it would heighten the risk that foreign oil workers could be caught in crossfire, particularly if kidnappings continue. Until now, they have been released afternegotiations involving cash payments and promises of community development.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2006

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