Nigerian militants pull out of kidnap talks

Nigerian militants said on Friday they have pulled out of talks on the fate of four kidnapped Western oil workers, as officials released the first picture of the hostages.

Despite optimistic messages from the authorities charged with finding the captive oilmen, the dangerous crisis in Africa’s biggest oil-export industry continued to push world crude prices back towards their historic high.

A series of attacks on oil facilities over the past two weeks has killed at least 22 members of the security forces and three Nigerian oil workers, and shut down more than 8% of the country’s oil production.

In the southern city of Yenagoa, a ramshackle boom town surrounded on three sides by the winding creeks of the Niger Delta, government spokesperson Ekiyor Welson continued to predict a rapid end to the 16-day-old hostage drama.

“The hostages are safe. We’re almost getting there. The negotiators have been able to make an agreement and very soon they will be released,” he said at the headquarters of the Bayelsa state government.

But the kidnappers, in a message to Agence France-Presse, dismissed such talk and insisted that the men will not be released until their demands are met.

“Those guys are not going anywhere.
The Nigerian government still fails to understand that this is different,” said a statement from an e-mail account that has previously been used by the kidnap gang.

“They will not be released for any reason other than that specified in all our statements,” the message warned. “We are not discussing with anyone for a while. This is in reaction to the Nigerian government’s non-appreciation of the situation at hand,” it added.

Meanwhile, a photograph released by Nigerian security sources showed British security expert Nigel Watson-Clark, Honduran engineer Harry Ebanks, United States boat skipper Patrick Landry and their Bulgarian colleague Milko Nichev.

The four were kidnapped on January 11 by heavily armed ethnic Ijaw militants who stormed their supply vessel, the Liberty Service, as it worked in the EA offshore oilfield for energy giant Shell off the delta coast.

Friday’s picture, which is thought to be several days old, showed the men sitting on plastic chairs in a palm oil grove guarded by three Nigerian guerrilla fighters, one of whom is equipped with an assault rifle.

The men appear to be uninjured. Three are wearing the shorts and polo-shirt combination favoured by Westerners working in the field, while Nichev sports blue overalls. All four have a bottle of orange liquid at their feet.

The gang has demanded $1,5-billion from Shell to compensate Ijaw communities polluted by the oil industry and the release of two local ethnic leaders being held by Nigerian authorities.

Various e-mailed statements identify the hostage-takers as hard-line elements of the 14-million-strong Ijaw ethnic group seeking to seize control of the oil resources lying under their land in the delta region.

Since the kidnapping, armed gangs have blown up a major oil pipeline and attacked two oil facilities, killing 22 police officers and soldiers and three Nigerian oil workers. It is not clear if the attacks are linked.

Shell has cut production by 221 000 barrels since the start of the crisis and has warned that tankers arriving to pick up crude at its Forcados export terminal might have to wait for up to two weeks to load.

Oil prices surged past $67 for the second time since the start of the crisis on Friday, after the militants threatened more attacks on foreign workers.

Nigeria is Africa’s biggest oil exporter, producing 2,6-million barrels of highly prized sweet light crude per day and accounting for 10% of the US’s oil imports.—Sapa-AFP

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