By Austin Ekeinde
PORT HARCOURT, Nigeria (Reuters) - Former militants fed up with a Nigerian government amnesty program are regrouping and are behind a renewed wave of kidnappings, robberies and oil theft, security officials say.
A group of ex-rebels are believed to be responsible for a "major attack" on an oil pipeline in Brass River that forced Italian oil firm Agip to declare a force majeure -- freedom from contractual obligations -- on its exports on Wednesday, industry and security sources said.
"They were former militants looking for an easy way to make money," said a security source working in the oil industry.
Nigeria's plan to rehabilitate, educate and employ thousands of former rebels has stalled since ailing President Umaru Yar'Adua left last November for treatment for a heart ailment. He has since returned, but remains too sick to rule.
Acting President Goodluck Jonathan, who assumed executive powers in February, has made security in the oil-producing Niger Delta one of his top priorities -- but has yet to get the amnesty program back on track.
"The fear is that if the amnesty program is not fully implemented, most of them will easily return back to crime," said Bestman Woka, amnesty coordinator for Rivers state.
One industry source said a recent flight over the creeks of the delta revealed many of the waterways polluted by spillages caused by oil thieves, indicating a sharp rise in thefts of industrial quantities of crude.
Columns of smoke also suggested a plethora of illegal refineries where the stolen crude was being processed.
Kidnapping particularly of prominent local Nigerians has also risen in recent weeks, including in Abia state on the fringe of the Niger Delta, where two German men were also seized by gunmen this month and held for almost a week.
Five officials from Nigeria's drug administration agency NAFDAC were kidnapped in Abia on Wednesday after visiting the family of a colleague shot dead by gunmen. Two, including a pregnant woman, were later released, but a 15 million naira ($100,000) ransom was demanded for the others, NAFDAC said.
Police shot dead four gunmen trying to kidnap a Nigerian oil worker in Port Harcourt on Tuesday, while a local government official was abducted the same day.
Hundreds of former rebels surrendered arms last year to participate in Yar'Adua's amnesty program, the most serious attempt yet to resolve years of unrest which has prevented Nigeria from pumping more than two thirds of its oil capacity.
But the government has been slow in fulfilling its promises of a better life in the impoverished Niger Delta.
Amnesty centres in Rivers state, which housed dozens of former rebels, have been shut down since February but those responsible for the program say they remain in close contact with ex-militants and that stipends are being paid.
Security officials say the crime wave mainly involves small gangs rather than the large, organized militant groups responsible for years of attacks on oil industry infrastructure.
Rebel leaders have accepted the amnesty offer in return for huge payouts, but many of their followers have not reaped similar rewards, forcing them to fend for themselves.
"Who do you think is carrying out these kidnappings and armed robberies all over the place? The former militants are the ones doing it," said Suleiman Abba, police commissioner for Rivers state.
Still, fewer major attacks have allowed oil firms like Royal Dutch Shell to ramp up production in the Niger Delta.
Shell said it had pumped 80,000 barrels of oil equivalent per day more in the first quarter than the same period last year because of the improving security situation.
(Writing by Randy Fabi; Editing by Nick Tattersall and Mark Heinrich)