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Reuters: Nigerian rebel group MEND claims oil kidnap

27 Oct 2007 10:45:34 GMT
By Tom Ashby

LAGOS, Oct 27 (Reuters) – A prominent militant group claimed responsibility on Saturday for the kidnapping of six foreign workers from an Italian oil facility off the coast of Nigeria.

The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) gave no reason for Friday’s abduction, the second in a week, which underscored the fragility of a peace initiative in the Niger Delta, Africa’s biggest oil producing region.

“MEND carried out the attack. Six oil workers captured,” the group said in an e-mail to Reuters from a recognised MEND address.

The raid on the Mystras oil production vessel, 53 miles (85 km) offshore and operated by ENI unit Saipem and SBM Offshore , cut output by 50,000 barrels per day (bpd) and helped lift oil prices to a record $92 a barrel on Friday.

ENI said the six hostages included Polish, Filipino and Nigerian nationals, but industry sources said some Indians were also among the captives.

Attacks by MEND since early last year had already cut Nigerian output by a fifth and forced thousands of foreigners to flee the vast wetlands region in southern Nigeria.

MEND had observed a ceasefire since the inauguration of President Umaru Yar’Adua in May, who promised to address armed groups’ grievances of poverty and neglect.

But it threatened to resume kidnappings and attacks after the arrest last month of one of its leaders, Henry Okah, in Angola on gun running charges.

CONTACT MADE

Kingsley Kuku, secretary of a government committee negotiating with the rebels, told Reuters he was making contact with those responsible for the abduction.

“This happened in an area under the control of MEND,” he said. “We are reaching out to MEND. We are working on it and we are getting close. When we are through, they should be released within 48 hours.”

MEND also claimed responsibility for an attack on the offshore EA oilfield last week in which seven workers contracted to Royal Dutch Shell were abducted for two days. The EA field, which can pump 115,000 bpd, has been closed since an earlier attack in February 2006.

Kuku said MEND fighters had resumed operations because of Okah’s detention. He said he feared the group was preparing for a major assault on the world’s eighth largest oil exporter.

“From what we are hearing, these are warning strikes. That is what they say. We are worried they are planning something bigger,” he told Reuters.

MEND has accused Nigeria of being behind Okah’s arrest.

The Nigerian presidency has said it wants Okah returned to Nigeria to face criminal charges, a position that is not shared by many involved in the peace effort.

Nigeria has no extradition treaty with Angola.

Kuku said any attempt to bring Okah to Nigeria as a suspected criminal would be counterproductive.

“Nigeria should not get involved. Angola should release Okah so our peace process can go on,” he said.

The government has had regular contacts with several militia leaders over the past few months in the hope of holding a formal peace conference before the end of the year.

But militant representatives say they are frustrated with the slow pace of progress and organisation of the talks, and they doubt the sincerity of the government. 

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