May 12, 2006

Three foreign oil workers freed in Nigeria: police

By Austin Ekeinde

PORT HARCOURT, Nigeria (Reuters) - Three foreign oil
workers, including an Italian, taken hostage in Nigeria's oil
capital Port Harcourt were released on Friday after a day in
captivity, police said.

The employees of Italian oil contractor Saipem were
abducted at gunpoint by members of a community where Saipem was
working and which was in dispute with the company over
compensation for environmental damage.

"They have been released. The issues of disagreement must
have been resolved," Rivers State Police Commissioner Samuel
Agbetuyi told Reuters by telephone.

A Bukuma community leader, Mbaka Harmony, told a local
radio station that that the community was demanding 300 million
naira ($2.3 million) in compensation for damage caused by
Saipem's laying of a pipeline through the area.

In Rome, the Italian Foreign Ministry confirmed the release
of the Italian national, Vito Macrina, and the two other men.

The kidnapping was unrelated to a five-month campaign of
sabotage, bombings and kidnapping against Nigeria's Western-run
oil industry by militants fighting for more economic autonomy
in Nigeria's far south.

The attacks by the Movement for the Emancipation of the
Niger Delta (MEND) have reduced Nigerian oil exports by a
quarter since February.

The latest abduction, and the assassination of a U.S. oil
executive in Port Harcourt on Wednesday, marked a new low in
security in the world's eighth largest oil exporter.


Kidnapping is a fairly common method used by poor villagers
in the lawless delta, suffering neglect by their own
government, to extract benefits or cash from oil companies.

Hostages are routinely released after payment of a ransom,
although some oil companies have banned such payments.

Port Harcourt is the largest city in the Niger Delta, which
produces all of Nigeria's oil, and several multinationals have
major offices there, including Royal Dutch Shell and Agip.

Militancy is fueled by resentment among many delta
inhabitants, who feel cheated out of the riches being produced
from their tribal lands.

Neglect and corruption have eroded trust in government,
while communal rivalries and abuses by the military have led to
the rise of well-armed community militias.

They have taken advantage of the absence of law and order
to engage in large-scale theft of crude oil, extortion,
blackmail and kidnapping against oil companies, which rely on
ill-equipped and poorly trained police and troops to protect

MEND's emergence in December has raised the stakes in the
delta, because it introduced more professional guerrilla
tactics, more deadly firepower and a clearer political
dimension to the violence.