YENAGOA, Nigeria, AP – Four foreign oil workers were released Monday after being held hostage for more than two weeks by a militia demanding that residents in volatile southern Nigeria benefit more from its energy wealth.
The hostages — including one American — were released to a team of negotiators at an undisclosed town in the oil-rich but volatile Niger delta region, said Nelson Azabolanari, commissioner for information in Bayelsa state.
He said they would be flown to the Nigerian capital Abuja, where President Olusegun Obasanjo planned to hand them over to their respective embassies himself.
The oil workers — Louisiana native Patrick Landry, Briton Nigel Watson-Clark, Bulgarian Milko Nichev and Honduran Harry Ebanks — were abducted by armed gunmen at Shell’s offshore EA oil rig in the Niger delta on Jan. 11.
“We are very happy that they have been released safely,” said Graeme Bannatyne, spokesman for the British High Commission in Nigeria.
The previously unknown militia group who abducted them, the Movement for the Emancipation of the People of the Niger Delta, initially said they would only release them if the government freed two detained leaders of their ethnic Ijaw group and if Shell paid local communities $1.5 billion to compensate for environmental pollution.
The hostages were released, however, without the conditions being met.
The imprisoned Ijaws are Mujahid Dokubo-Asari, the delta’s most prominent militia leader, and Diepreye Alamieyeseigha, a former Bayelsa state governor who fled money laundering charges in Britain in November before being arrested in Nigeria.
A close aide to Dokubo-Asari, speaking on condition of anonymity out of fear of reprisals or arrest by authorities, said the militants released the hostages after an appeal from Dokubo-Asari to avoid “any problems with the international community.” His group, the Niger Delta People’s Volunteer Force, denies any involvement in the kidnappings.
Nigeria is Africa’s leading oil exporter and the fifth-biggest source of U.S. oil imports. The country produces about 2.5 million barrels a day.
But oil also is a source of unrest in the southern part of the country. Violence, hostage-taking and sabotage of oil operations have been common in the Niger delta in the past 15 years amid demands by the region’s impoverished communities for a greater share of the oil revenue flowing from their land.
Attacks in recent weeks had cut Nigeria’s daily oil exports by nearly 10 percent.
Shell workers running the EA platform have been taken hostage on two previous occasions in the past year over a dispute with neighboring communities, who accuse the company of reneging on a promise to undertake development projects for their region.
A Croatian was seized in December 2004 and freed days later. Two Germans and four Nigerian oil workers were similarly taken hostage in June and later freed.
The latest hostage crisis was Nigeria’s second longest, surpassed only by the monthlong detention of two foreign helicopter pilots in 2002.