Nigerian militants release 7 foreign oil workers

Sunday, October 22, 2006

The Associated Press

LAGOS, Nigeria -- Militants in Nigeria have freed seven foreign oil workers seized during an attack earlier this month on an ExxonMobil compound in the restive southern delta region, company officials said Saturday.

The workers -- four Britons, a Romanian, an Indonesian and a Malaysian -- were handed over by the Nigerian government to ExxonMobil officials in the southern town of Eket, said a company official, Yemi Fakajjo. The seven were taken hostage in Eket during an Oct. 3 raid that killed two guards.

The men were all in good health, ExxonMobil spokesman Paul Arinze said. They were flown to Nigeria's economic capital, Lagos, en route to their various countries.

Officials did not say whether a ransom was paid to release the seven men.

Malcolm Wilson, chief operating officer of the Scottish firm Sparrows Offshore Ltd. that employs three of the Britons, said only that their release was the result of "intensive efforts by the governments and companies involved."

Nigeria is Africa's largest petroleum producer and the fifth-largest supplier of crude oil to the United States, but most people in the southern oil region remain deeply impoverished, fueling the armed dissident groups. Attacks by militant groups over the past year have cut nearly a quarter of Nigeria's usual daily output of 2.5 million barrels of oil.

October has been an especially volatile month in the delta. Dozens of militants sank two military patrol boats on Oct. 2, killing four soldiers and a civilian. The seven oil workers were abducted a day later, followed by another militant attack in which rebels claimed they killed nine soldiers and captured two government gunboats.

The following week, attackers overran a navy base and occupied a nearby Shell oil facility, holding dozens of troops and oil workers hostage. They were later released.

Some rebels say kidnappings and attacks that grab international attention are some of the only tools available to them to take their rightful share of the wealth. The government calls the captors criminals and says violence cannot lead to the betterment of the swampy region.

More than two dozen foreign oil workers have been kidnapped this year. Hostage takings generally end peacefully, with the targets returned unharmed -- often after ransoms are paid.

Associated Press writer Dan Udoh contributed to this report from Port Harcourt.

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