Nigerian military frees 19 hostages in oil region

18th November 2010, Comments 0 comments

Nigeria's military has freed 19 hostages in the country's main oil-producing region, including Americans, French, Indonesian and Canadian nationals taken in raids on oil installations.

The hostages freed in the operation were presented to journalists on Thursday, some still in their work suits, with the military saying they had been rescued from a militant camp. They appeared in good health.

"These gentlemen were recovered from Obese Camp in Rivers state," said Major General Charles Omoregie.

The rescue operation Wednesday came after a series of kidnappings in the turbulent Niger Delta, the heart of one of the world's largest oil industries, and after the military threatened action to clear out militant camps.

Recent attacks had signaled a new round of abductions in the region after an amnesty programme offered last year was credited with greatly reducing unrest there.

Security sources had earlier confirmed the 19 hostages had been freed. Those released included two French, two Americans, two Indonesians, a Canadian and Nigerians, security sources said.

The victims were all taken hostage in recent raids on facilities in the country's Niger Delta.

France's foreign minister had earlier confirmed that the two French nationals were freed. Canada's Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon also welcomed the news.

Nigeria's main militant group MEND had claimed responsibility for kidnapping 14 of the hostages. Those released were believed taken in three separate incidents.

The military had at the weekend warned of action in the Niger Delta and urged residents living near militant camps to clear out.

Eight of the hostages were believed taken in an attack this week on an ExxonMobil facility, while seven others were kidnapped last week in a raid on a support vessel and Transocean oil rig overseen by Afren.

The remaining four were believed to be employees for Julius Berger taken in another incident, the sources said.

There was no immediate indication of whether ransoms were paid.

Last week, three French workers for maritime services firm Bourbon seized from an oil industry supply vessel in September were also freed.

They were kidnapped when armed pirates in several speedboats attacked their 2,000-tonne vessel off Nigeria.

MEND -- the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta -- has claimed scores of attacks in the Niger Delta.

In a statement on Tuesday, it warned of a "major operation" and claimed one of its camps had come under military fire on Monday.

Nigerian authorities had at the time confirmed operations were underway to hunt down kidnappers, but provided few details.

Unrest in the Niger Delta before the government offered an amnesty deal to militants last year had slashed production in one of the world's largest oil exporters.

The amnesty was credited with greatly reducing unrest in the region and oil production has rebounded to an estimated 2.2 million barrels per day, but there has been a new round of attacks in recent months.

Many observers say the amnesty has failed to address underlying issues of poverty and unemployment in the Niger Delta. Militant leaders given stipends in exchange for turning in their weapons would eventually be replaced by others, they warned.

MEND, which claims to be fighting for a fairer distribution of oil revenue, has also been seen as an umbrella organisation for criminal gangs. It is believed to have splintered, particularly over the amnesty.

The recent attacks come ahead of elections set for early next year. President Goodluck Jonathan, who is running in the elections, is from the Niger Delta and faces pressure to resolve the situation in the region.

© 2010 AFP

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