Nigerian forces search for seized foreign sailors: police, army

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Security forces in Nigeria on Sunday combed through the creeks of the restive oil-rich Niger Delta in search of 12 foreign sailors seized last week from a cargo vessel during an attack, police said.

Gunmen on Friday snatched the multinational crew, including a 71-year-old German captain, in an attack in the waters off the coast of southern Nigeria's oil producing delta region.

Police spokeswoman in the oil hub Rivers State, Rita Abbey, said the whereabouts of the victims were still unknown, but camps belonging to certain militants in the region were suspected and under surveillance.

Abbey told AFP the Nigerian navy and airforce had mounted the search operation "to locate hideouts".

"Police in Bonny and adjoining riverine areas (are) closely monitoring for possible rescue/arrest," she said.

No group has yet claimed responsibility for the attack.

"There has not been any contact from the group that carried out the attack. But the various arms of the military are alert and searching the area," spokesman for a special force deployed in the volatile region, lieutenant-colonel Timothy Antigha told AFP.

One of the seamen, a Ukrainian, was injured during the attack when the pirates jumped on board the Antigua Barbuda-flagged BBC Polonia ship.

Germany has confirmed that two of its nationals were among the 12. Its foreign ministry has set up a crisis team and "is working in cooperation with the Nigerian authorities to ensure that the two Germans are freed," a spokeswoman told AFP in Berlin.

There were also Russians, a Latvian and a Lithuanian among the crew.

Lithuania on Sunday confirmed the identity of the sailor from the Baltic state as Alexei Sysoi.

Two Russian sailors and a Lithuanian skipper taken hostage in May by pirates who attacked a Greek-owned ship off Cameroon have been freed in Nigeria, according to Russian sailors' union and a Lithuanian shipping firm.

Nigerian navy on Saturday suggested the vessel is German-flagged, but a German official who who asked not to be named said the ship is not registered in the European country. website lists it as an Antigua Barbuda flagged ship that was heading to Nigeria's southern Onne port, situated on the Bonny estuary, in the Niger Delta.

The navy sailed the vessel to safety.

Abbey said security forces suspect the attack was masterminded by a group led by one of the former senior commanders of the main armed Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), Farah Dagogo who surrendered under a government offered amnesty last year.

But Antigha said he had no idea who was behind the hijacking, adding "we are sure that in a short time, we should be able to be clear about who is holding them".

Thousands of militants who for three years waged a so-called oil war in the restive Niger Delta have been getting restless following months of delays in their post-amnesty retraining and re-integration into society exercise.

Hundreds of people, both locals and foreigners, most but not all of them linked to the oil sector, have been kidnapped in the volatile Niger Delta in recent years.

Most have been released after a few days or a few weeks in captivity, very often after the payment of a ransom.

© 2010 AFP

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