March 27, 2006

US and British hostages freed in Nigeria

By Segun Owen

WARRI, Nigeria (Reuters) - Nigerian militants freed three
foreign oil workers on Monday after five weeks in captivity and
said their fighters would now focus on crippling oil exports
from the world's eighth largest supplier.

The three men, two Americans and one Briton, were handed to
the governor of Nigeria's southern Delta state by an ethnic
Ijaw leader who had been asked to negotiate with the militants.

"(The three) are in very good health and high spirits,"
said Abel Oshevire, a spokesman for Delta state.

The freed men -- Cody Oswald and Russel Spell of the United
States and John Hudspith of Britain -- were transferred to
embassy officials who took them for medical checks.

"John's release has come as a huge relief for all his
family," the Hudspith family said in a statement.

The rebel Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta
(MEND) had demanded as conditions for their freedom more local
autonomy over the delta's oil wealth, the release of two jailed
Ijaw leaders and compensation for oil pollution.

However, on Monday they said the release was unconditional.
They said kidnapping had tied up hundreds of fighters who would
be better used to extend a three-month campaign of sabotage
against oil pipelines and platforms that has already cut a
quarter off Nigeria's 2.4 million barrels per day output.

"Care for these hostages tied down close to 800 of our
fighters (who) would be put to better use attacking oil
facilities," they said in a statement.

President Olusegun Obasanjo is due to fly to Washington on
Tuesday and pressure had been building up for an end to the
standoff over the hostages.


MEND militants originally captured nine foreign oil workers
on February 18 during a wave of attacks on oil facilities, but
six were released on March 1.

It was the second bout of kidnapping and attacks by the
previously unknown group since January.

The raids have forced oil companies to cut 630,000 barrels
a day of oil production in the OPEC member nation, and MEND has
previously threatened to cut another million barrels a day with
a major attack this month.

Royal Dutch Shell, which has been worst hit by the attacks,
said it would not resume normal operations until it was safe to
do so. It said it was particularly concerned about the
environmental impact of the crisis, which has prevented workers
from assessing spills, effecting repairs and cleaning them up.

Ijaw activists have been working behind the scenes to
resolve the three-month-old crisis, and some saw the release as
a possible first step in that direction.

"Now that MEND have shown good faith, it is of utmost
urgency that we move to the dialogue table to discuss the
issues raised," said Oronto Douglas, an Ijaw activist nominated
by MEND to mediate talks with the government.

"If the issues they proposed are discussed with a view to
the attainment of justice, it will lead to a final resolution
of the matter," he told Reuters by telephone.

The majority of people in the delta have seen few benefits
from decades of oil extraction that has yielded billions of
dollars in profits for the government and foreign oil

Vast areas of the delta are not connected to the national
power grid. There is no clean water in many places. There are
few roads. Teachers and doctors are in short supply.

The environment has been wrecked by oil spills and the
constant burning of gas associated with the extraction of oil.

Militants, often armed and funded with the proceeds of
crude oil theft, roam the mangrove-lined waterways of the vast
delta in speedboats. Ethnic warfare, piracy and extortion are

Analysts say Nigerian governments, during almost three
decades of military dictatorship as well as during periods of
civilian rule, have seen it as being in their interests to
control the oil by keeping the delta poor, divided and