August 15, 2006

Four oil workers freed in Nigeria

By Austin Ekeinde

PORT HARCOURT, Nigeria (Reuters) - Two Norwegian and two
Ukrainian oil workers being held hostage in Nigeria were freed
on Tuesday as the government promised to crack down on a surge
in unrest in Africa's largest oil producer.

About 16 foreign oil workers have been kidnapped in five
separate abductions in the past two weeks in the oil-producing
Niger Delta. Nine have been released.

"We are going to be firm and say no to violence and
hostage-taking. Wherever we find hostage-takers now, we will
hunt them down. We will not accept this any longer," President
Olusegun Obasanjo said in a statement after meeting security
chiefs and political leaders from the delta.

He ordered the military and police to meet criminals in the
delta "force for force," and directed them to start
round-the-clock patrols of the creeks.

He also threatened to sanction companies caught paying
ransoms, a practice which analysts say has fueled the violence.

The Norwegian and Ukrainian oil workers released on Tuesday
were taken a week earlier from a ship servicing an offshore oil
rig operated by Peak Petroleum, in partnership with Equator

Peak is in dispute with a local community over jobs and
other benefits.

"The hostages have been released and they are looking
well," said state government official Victor Akenge.

The four men were released after Peak struck an agreement
to include the community in their benefits package, with the
blessing of the local government, authorities said.


The threat to clamp down on kidnapping appeared to signal a
change in the government's stance toward a recent upsurge in
violence in its southern oil heartland.

A series of attacks and kidnappings at the beginning of the
year by a new militant group demanding more local control over
the delta's oil wealth prompted Obasanjo to set up a committee
to inject new investment into the neglected region.

Those attacks forced Royal Dutch Shell to shut about
500,000 barrels per day of oil production, almost a quarter of
the capacity of the OPEC member nation.

Many abductions are motivated by ransom, but some recent
incidents have taken on a political tone, with demands
reflecting a growing ethnic nationalism among the Ijaw tribe,
native to the Niger Delta.

Criminal gangs, sometimes involved in the large-scale theft
of crude oil from pipelines, also regularly indulge in
kidnapping and extortion, and it is often difficult to
distinguish between the two.

Violence is fueled by widespread feelings of injustice in
the Niger Delta where most people live in poverty despite the
wealth being pumped from their ancestral lands.

A previous crackdown on militants in the delta in February
led to an escalation in violence, and triggered the attacks
that shut Shell's operations in the western delta.

In the latest abduction on Sunday, armed men snatched at
least five foreign workers -- two Britons, a German, an
Irishman and a Pole -- from the nightclub in the southern oil
city of Port Harcourt shortly before midnight.

An American citizen has also been kidnapped, but it was not
clear if it was in the same incident.

The United States embassy said the nightclub attack
represented a significant escalation and advised its citizens
not to travel to the delta, and to avoid public places.