Kidnappers release British, Bulgarian hostages in Nigeria

Thursday, August 9, 2007

PORT HARCOURT, Nigeria -- Kidnappers released a British and a Bulgarian hostage in Nigeria's restive southern oil region Wednesday, while the young son of a local legislator was seized in a separate incident and gunbattles raged for a third day.

Gunmen had kidnapped the two foreign workers July 8 from a barge on a river in the lawless region where the crude is pumped in Africa's biggest producer. The pair was handed over to Nigerian authorities Wednesday, officials said.

The men, looking exhausted but otherwise not visibly harmed, could be seen at government offices in southern Rivers state. Britain and Bulgaria confirmed their release.

The state spokesman, Emma Okah, said no ransom was paid.

Anger in the region runs high among impoverished residents who have benefited little from four decades of oil production. Militant attacks have cut about one quarter of Nigeria's normal production of 2.5 million barrels per day since violence began rising in late 2005, contributing to the spike in global prices.

Nearly 200 foreigners have been abducted this year in Nigeria.

"This government will no longer fold its hands and watch criminals kidnap for their personal benefit," said Okah. "All those in the state should be called to order."

In the city of Port Harcourt, gunbattles raged for a third straight day, with residents reporting that gunmen from rival gangs were firing at each other, and that security forces were engaging both sides.

The military said it boosted its troop presence at some public buildings. Local media reported that eight people died between Monday and Tuesday, but police had no immediate confirmation on the death toll.

In a separate incident, kidnappers broke into the house of a legislator in a southern Nigerian oil state and snatched her 11-year-old son. Kidnappers smashed through the roof and seized Rubi Benjamin's son overnight. The kidnappers were demanding the equivalent of $150,000 for the boy's safe return, said police spokesman Iniobong Ibiokette.

Benjamin is one of 24 state assembly members in the southern state of Bayelsa.

While foreign oil workers were the initial targets of militants demanding more oil benefits for the region, criminal gangs quickly joined the practice, and prominent Nigerians and their families have been kidnapped.

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