Nigerian navy sails to oil rigs as hostage talks stall

Thursday, May 1, 2003

LAGOS, Nigeria -- Nigerian navy ships sailed Wednesday toward offshore drilling rigs where 97 foreigners -- including 17 Americans -- were being held after talks to resolve the 11-day hostage standoff broke off in deadlock.

About 100 disgruntled Nigerian oil workers have been holding the foreigners aboard four drilling rigs owned by Houston-based Transocean, about 20 miles off Nigeria's coast. Besides the Americans, 35 Britons and one Canadian are being held, along with about 170 Nigerian personnel.

The talks between oil company and union officials broke off Wednesday after about four hours, with Peter Akpatason, president of Nigeria's largest oil union, angrily accusing company and government officials of "planning to use force" to end the standoff.

"If they use force and hurt any of our members, we will hurt the economy," Akpatason warned without elaborating.

Nigerian navy spokesman Capt. Shinebi Hungiapuko said navy vessels were sailing toward the offshore platforms to "make sure everything is sorted out amicably, if possible."

"We have deployed the navy to the trouble spot," he said. If negotiations fail, "then we will do what we have to do."

Some hostages have expressed fears their captors will kill them or blow up the rigs if authorities try to free them with armed raids. Their conditions were unclear, although no injuries or deaths have been reported.

Navy authorities assured Transocean earlier Wednesday they were not sending ships to the area, company spokesman Guy Cantwell said. But, he added, "I'm not in a position to comment on what the navy may or may not do."

Outside intervention

A spokesman for Britain's Foreign Office said he was aware Nigerian warships were in the area, but stressed, "there is no suggestion that they will be intervening in the dispute."

During Wednesday's talks, Transocean emphasized to union leaders "that we are not going to back down," Cantwell said. Among the disputes is the company's dismissal of five union members for alleged insubordination.

Akpatason said the talks broke off over Transocean's insistence that everyone leave without firm guarantees they would keep their jobs.

Some hostages expressed fears for their safety.

"Make no mistake of the danger we're in," one hostage said in an e-mail message read by Jake Molloy, general secretary of the Offshore Industry Liaison Committee, an Aberdeen, Scotland-based labor union that has members among the hostages. "If they have lost everything, they will make sure we lose everything. And that means our lives."

Company officials have dismissed reports that any oil workers have been threatened.

The strikers have allowed at least 32 detained workers to leave, a Transocean spokesman said, including an electrician who suffered a nervous breakdown and another man whose wife was seriously ill.

A British hostage told his wife early Tuesday the hostage-takers were threatening to blow up the rigs if anyone tries to storm them, Molloy said.

The woman, whom Molloy declined to identify, said her husband did not believe the strikers had explosives. Molloy did not know if the strikers had guns, although he said some hostages said their captors were armed with the installation's firefighting axes.

When one of the detained worker contacted his wife by satellite phone late Tuesday, "everything was calm," Molloy said, and the worker expressed more concern about "boredom and sunburn" than violence.

The hostage-takers have blocked access to helicopter landing pads and ports on the platforms.

The protest began on April 19 over the strikers' demand the company transport Nigerian workers to the oil platforms by helicopter instead of boat.

The rigs are drilling wells run on behalf of multinationals Royal/Dutch Shell and TotalFinaElf.

Sabotage and hostage-takings by community activists, labor groups and thugs demanding compensation for land use and alleged environmental damage are relatively common in the Niger Delta, where nearly all of Nigeria's oil is drilled. Hostages rarely are harmed.

Ethnic and political violence is another hazard in the region. Fighting in March shut down nearly 40 percent of Nigeria's production of 2.2 million barrels a day.

Nigeria is one of the world's largest oil exporters and the fifth-largest producer of U.S. oil imports.

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