Three French, one Thai kidnapped off Niger Delta

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The crew of an oil industry supply vessel off Nigeria, from which three French and one Thai seamen were kidnapped Wednesday, tried to fight off the pirates in a two hour gun battle, an official said.

The kidnapping is the second hostage drama for French energy workers in West Africa in less than a week.

Nigerian navy spokesman David Nabaida confirmed to AFP that four sailors rather than three, as previously reported by media, had been abducted. The fourth man, whose nationality was not given earlier, was Thai.

"Everything is being done to ensure we rescue these people and we hope that will be soon," he said.

"They (the attackers) were very well armed. There was a serious exchange of gunfire between them and our men, for close to two-and-a-half-hours.

"I think these are just criminal elements trying to make money," he added, referring to fears that there might be a political motive.

The men's employer, French maritime services firm Bourbon, and the French foreign ministry said they had contacted the kidnapped workers' families and were working with Nigerian authorities to secure their release.

"Everything points to it being a classic act of piracy," French Defence Minister Herve Morin told France 24 television.

There have been no reports of ransom demands.

Wednesday's drama came less than a week after five French nationals working in neighbouring Niger's uranium fields were kidnapped by Al-Qaeda militants, in an unrelated attack that has already stretched French assets in the region.

The sailors were abducted when pirates equipped with several speedboats attacked the French-flagged Bourbon Alexandre, a 2,000-tonne tug and supply ship working in waters off Nigeria's restive Niger Delta region.

"The 13 other crew members have remained on board and nobody has been injured. No claim has been made at this stage," Bourbon said in a statement.

Bourbon did not say exactly where the attack took place, but said its boat had been working on a field owned by Addax Petroleum, a Swiss-based subsidiary of the Chinese energy and chemical giant Sinopec.

Addax has several offshore and onshore fields in Nigeria, but its main offshore wells lie in OML123, an oil production bloc 60 kilometres (37 miles) south of the city of Calabar at the far eastern edge of the Niger Delta.

After the seaways off Somalia, the Gulf of Guinea south of Nigeria is one of the world's most notorious pirate hunting grounds, and ships working in the region's huge oil industry are often targeted by kidnap and ransom gangs.

Some of the gangs are purely criminal, while others claim to be fighting for the independence of the delta region, a swathe of mangrove forests and salt water swamp that is home to one of Africa's largest oil industries.

In most cases, hostages are released in exchange for undisclosed ransoms, and it is extremely rare for foreign workers to be hurt or killed -- although many find themselves held for weeks or months in remote villages.

"I think, from memory, that there were around 100 acts of piracy in 2009 in the Gulf of Guinea," Morin said.

"We are completely mobilised in Paris and Abuja to secure their release," foreign ministry spokesman Romain Nadal said, adding that Paris was in close "contact with the Nigerian authorities, Bourbon officials and the families."

The firm has been the target of several attacks in the past two years in the Niger Delta oil-producing area.

Nine Bourbon workers were taken hostage along with their ship in January last year and freed a few days later. In October 2008 another of its ships was seized by pirates off the Nigerian coast.

Two French crew members of a Bourbon supply ship were kidnapped by armed men in August 2008 in a bar in the port of Onne, near Port Harcourt, Nigeria's oil capital. They were freed in September of the same year.

Hundreds of people, mostly oil workers, have been kidnapped in the region since 2006.

© 2010 AFP

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