March 1, 2006

Oil worker released by Nigerian militants

By Segun Owen

WARRI, Nigeria (Reuters) - Ailing U.S. oil worker Macon
Hawkins, one of nine foreigners kidnapped by Nigerian
militants, was released on Wednesday on his 69th birthday.

Hawkins, who is from Kosciusko, Texas, and suffers from
diabetes, had been held in Nigeria's southern swamps along with
eight other employees of U.S. oil services company Willbros
since they were abducted from a boat on February 18.

"This was a humanitarian gesture in consideration of his
age, heath and a birthday gift to him," the militant Movement
for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta said.

Looking frail, gray-bearded Hawkins arrived at the
riverside jetty in Warri, in southern Delta state, and was
helped out of the boat and into a waiting car by U.S. embassy
officials, a Reuters witness said.

He was driven to the state governor's lodge where he was
due to contact his family.

The remaining eight hostages still in captivity are two
Americans, one Briton, two Egyptians, two Thais and a Filipino.

"We are considering the release of the Egyptian, Thai and
Filipino hostages as well. They're from countries without
investments in the oil industry. Just people looking for a good
job," they added in an email to Reuters.

Diplomats had earlier said they expected Hawkins to be
freed after he made a plea for a birthday release in a brief
interview with journalists from captivity last week.

The militants said they would continue their campaign of
kidnapping and sabotage against foreign oil investors in the
world's eighth largest crude exporter until their demands for
greater local autonomy over the delta's oil wealth were met.

Militant attacks on Western-operated oil installations in
the delta, a vast maze of mangrove-lined waterways, have forced
the OPEC member nation to cut exports by a fifth.

"We are having no talks with anyone," the militants said,
dismissing government reports of progress in talks about
release of all the hostages.

"Even if we release all these hostages, we will only move
elsewhere and do the same. If we can't get in the creeks, we
have the cities."

The militants said they had delayed their next attack to
concentrate their resources on "one huge crippling blow to the
Nigerian oil industry" and they would target a different area
of the Niger Delta.