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Hundreds of hostages gain freedom
PORT HARCOURT, Nigeria -- Hundreds of hostages left the offshore oil rigs where striking oil workers held them captive for weeks -- signaling a peaceful end to the standoff Saturday.
Some essential staff would remain behind on the four oil-drilling platforms, but "everyone else, they are departing in phases" over the weekend, said Guy Cantwell, spokesman for rig owners Transocean Inc., based in Houston.
The evacuation "is continuing and we are going to do it as quickly as we can," he added.
Many of the 170 Nigerian and 97 expatriate hostages -- which include 35 Britons, 17 Americans and two Canadians -- traveled Saturday with their 100 captors on boats and helicopters to port cities in Nigeria's oil-rich southern Niger Delta.
Cantwell said all the expatriate workers had already left the installations, in the sea 23 miles off Nigeria's southern coast.
Nigerian oil workers took the hostages as part of a wildcat strike launched April 19 over grievances with Transocean's management.
Company officials and strikers' representatives negotiated the captives' release Friday, after which the first hostage was soon freed.
The strikers have demanded the reinstatement of fired workers and that they be transported to the rigs by helicopters, not boats.
Their principal concerns will be addressed at a later date, according to a communique issued after Friday's talks.
Sweaty and bedraggled, the released hostages told of threats, tedium and discomfort, although there were no immediate reports of injuries.
Some hostages had earlier expressed fears their captors may kill them or blow up the rigs if security forces tried to storm the facilities.
"It was tense at the start, but the last few days weren't bad," said Mark Richards, a Transocean employee from Portsmouth in the United Kingdom, who arrived at this southern port city in a helicopter. "There was some intimidation," said Richards without elaborating.
"This was not that bad. Sometimes it's worse," said another oil worker, Luis Peraza of Puerto La Cruz, Venezuela. Peraza said he had been onboard Nigerian rigs during two previous strikes "over the years."
Two other helicopters carrying hostages were seen in Warri, another port town. Two ferry boats containing more than 40 expatriates and Nigerians landed at the port of Onne, near Port Harcourt.
A Nigerian labor leader who helped negotiate the hostages' freedom said he believed all captives were expected to leave the rigs on Saturday.
The rigs are drilling wells on behalf of multinationals Shell and TotalFinaElf. Captives were from several companies, including Transocean, Shell, TotalFinaElf and U.S.-based Baker Hughes.
Sabotage and hostage-takings by community activists, labor groups and thugs demanding compensation for land use and alleged environmental damage are common in the southern Niger Delta, where nearly all of Nigeria's oil is drilled. Hostages rarely are harmed.
Despite the region's vast petroleum stores, most of its residents remain desperately poor. Nigeria is one of the world's largest oil exporters and the fifth-largest producer of U.S. oil imports.