Establishing Oil Worker Security in Nigeria

Negotiators worked Tuesday to free four foreigners held hostage in Nigeria's southern oil region as militants claiming to hold the captives said they would target oil installations if their demands were not met within days.

Initial reports from security agents and community leaders dealing with militants holding an American, a Bulgarian, a Briton and a Honduran in Bayelsa state show "positive signals that the matter will soon be resolved amicably," the governor's office said in a statement.

"Let it be stated clearly that no ransom has been demanded so far and no amount has been paid," it said.

A previously unknown group, Movement for Emancipation of Niger Delta, claims to be holding the oil workers, who were kidnapped when armed men attacked an offshore oil platform run by Royal Dutch Shell last week.

The group demands the release of militia leader Mujahid Dokubo Asari, who has been detained on treason charges since September. He has campaigned for regional secession and greater local control of oil wealth.

In a phone call to The Associated Press in Lagos on Tuesday, a man identifying himself as Brutus Etikpaden and the group's leader, threatened to escalate attacks on oil installations if the group's demands are not met by Friday.

"Our demands remain the same and if they're not met in two days we'll give the full fireworks," said Etikpaden.

The demand for the release of Dokubo-Asari and other detained ethnic Ijaw leaders form only part of their general objective, which is local control of oil wealth produced in the Niger Delta, he said.

"We have launched Operation Climate Change, and we'll cripple Nigeria's oil exports to prove that nobody can take our oil without our consent," Etikpaden said.

It was not known how many fighters, if any, he controls.

Dokubo-Asari appeared in court on Tuesday, saying afterward that he supported open revolt in the oil-rich south.

"If it's the decision of the Ijaw people to go back to armed struggle, it's binding on me. I'm in total support," he told reporters in the capital, Abuja.

He called on oil companies to leave the region.

"Oil has brought a lot of misery to the Ijaw and the Niger Delta. They should leave. If they don't leave, the Ijaw people will make them leave, whether Dokubo-Asari is in prison or not," he said.

Violence, hostage-taking and sabotage of oil operations are common in the oil-rich Niger Delta where by the region's impoverished communities for a greater share of the oil revenue flowing from their land. Hostages are rarely harmed.

Militant violence has escalated in the restive south, a desperately poor region despite Nigeria's vast oil wealth.

Nigeria, Africa's leading oil producer, exports 2.5 million barrels of oil daily and is the fifth-biggest source of U.S. oil imports.

Shell said it has evacuated 300 employees from facilities in the western Niger Delta after heavily armed fighters attacked the company's Benisede oil platform in the area on Sunday, killing a catering contractor and damaging the facility.

Four days earlier, gunmen had attacked Shell's EA platform in shallow waters near the delta coast, seizing the hostages. A major Shell pipeline leading to its Forcados export terminal was blown up the following day.


Associated Press reporters Dulue Mbachu in Lagos and Bashir Adigun in Abuja, Nigeria, contributed to this report.

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