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New York Times: Nigerian Militants Take Cash, Keep Foreign Hostages

ABUJA (Reuters) – A Nigerian militant group said on Wednesday it had seized $545,000 sent by Italian oil firm Agip to obtain the release of four foreign workers kidnapped on December 7 but had kept the men hostage.

Eni, Agip’s parent company, said it was working with the Nigerian authorities and the Italian foreign ministry to secure the release of the hostages and had no direct contact with any other parties.

The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), which wants four prisoners from the Niger Delta freed in exchange for the three Italians and one Lebanese, said Agip had sent middlemen with cash to persuade MEND guards to let them go.

“(Agip’s plan) involved paying 70 million nairato those supposed to be guarding the hostages for the hostages to be guided to a point where a boat was to be stationed to take them out of the creeks,” the MEND said in an e-mail.

“A middleman brought 70 million naira to one of our camps where the attempt was immediately reported. Needless to say, the money has been confiscated and will be put to better use.”

The MEND said such plans endangered the lives of the hostages as their guards had orders to shoot them if any attempt was made to release them without authorization.

Five weeks is the longest time the MEND has kept any hostages in the past, but the group’s spokesman suggested the four now in captivity might be detained for much longer.

“We are taking a cue from groups like (Colombian guerrillas) FARC which keeps hostages for years. We are prepared to keep them for as long as we find them useful and after that, who knows?” the spokesman wrote in an e-mail to Reuters.

POVERTY AND NEGLECT

Attacks on oil facilities and abductions of foreign oil workers have plagued the Niger Delta for years, but violence worsened in 2006.

Nigeria, an OPEC member and the world’s eighth-biggest exporter of crude, gets all its oil from the Niger Delta but the impoverished region of mangrove-lined creeks and swamps has long been neglected by the central and local governments.

The MEND, a faceless group which emerged in late 2005, launched a series of raids on oil facilities last February which shut down a fifth of Nigeria’s oil production capacity.

The group captured dozens of expatriates during a series of raids in January and February last year. All were released unharmed on undisclosed terms after up to five weeks.

The MEND says it will release its four captives in exchange for four prisoners in Nigerian jails: an impeached state governor, a militant leader and any two others from the delta.

But the group said this was a tactic and even if its demands were met, it would only declare a temporary pause in its campaign against the oil industry.

“(These are) just demands we know the Nigerian government will find difficult to meet. More like an excuse to chase out the oil companies,” the MEND’s spokesman said.

Since the abductions, the group has also detonated three car bombs in the delta’s main city, Port Harcourt, prompting oil majors Shell and Total to pull out hundreds of relatives of their expatriate staff.

January 3, 2007

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