Thursday, November 18, 2010

Freed hostages in Nigeria describe 'shocking' ordeal

PORT HARCOURT, Nigeria — Foreign oil workers among 19 hostages freed by Nigeria's military described a "shocking" ordeal Thursday, while authorities said no ransom was paid and vowed to wipe out militant camps.

The military freed the 19 hostages in an operation on Wednesday in the Niger Delta region, the heart of one of the world's largest oil industries. The victims included American, French, Indonesian, Canadian and Nigerian nationals.

The hostages were presented to journalists on Thursday, with the military saying they had been rescued from a militant camp, and appeared in relatively good health.

A Canadian hostage nursing a gunshot wound to his foot which he said resulted from a ricocheted bullet said the men saved rainwater for washing and drinking.

"It's a shocking experience and I wouldn't want anybody to ever go through such a thing," said Robert Croke, who was abducted in a raid on a support vessel and Transocean-owned oil rig last week.

James Robertson, an American oil worker taken in the same raid as Croke in the early hours of November 8, said the crisis was "like being in a prison."

A Nigerian military official said no ransom was paid for the release of the 19 hostages, who were believed to have been abducted in three separate incidents. A number of militant camps had been "taken over" by the military in recent days, he said.

"These gentlemen were recovered from Obese Camp in Rivers state," said Major General Charles Omoregie, referring to a camp said to be named for a militant leader.

"Not a dime was paid for the release of these gentlemen. It was a sustained raid. We don't go into negotiations."

He said there had been no casualties, adding the military operation would continue "for as long as it will take to uproot these criminals from the Niger Delta."

President Goodluck Jonathan in a statement on Thursday warned "that those who continue to hide under acronyms to engage in criminal acts of self-enrichment will no longer find a safe haven anywhere in the Niger Delta."

It was an apparent reference to those claiming to be members of militant groups, including the country's main such organisation MEND -- the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta.

The rescue came after a series of kidnappings in the turbulent Niger Delta, with the military having threatened action to clear out militant camps.

Recent attacks had signaled a new round of abductions in the region after an amnesty programme last year was credited with greatly reducing unrest.

MEND had claimed responsibility for kidnapping 14 of the hostages.

Eight were taken in an attack this week on an ExxonMobil facility, while seven others were kidnapped last week in a raid on a support vessel and Transocean oil rig overseen by Afren.

The remaining four were employees for Julius Berger taken in another incident. In total, there were two Americans, two French, two Indonesians, a Canadian and 12 Nigerians.

MEND has claimed scores of attacks in the Niger Delta. In a statement on Tuesday, it warned of a "major operation" and claimed one of its camps had come under military fire on Monday.

Nigerian authorities at the time confirmed operations were underway to hunt down kidnappers, but provided few details.

Unrest in the Niger Delta before the government offered an amnesty deal to militants last year had slashed production in one of the world's largest oil exporters.

The amnesty was credited with greatly reducing unrest in the region and oil production has rebounded to an estimated 2.2 million barrels per day, but there has been a new round of attacks in recent months.

Many observers say the amnesty has failed to address underlying issues of poverty and unemployment in the Niger Delta. Militant leaders given stipends in exchange for turning in their weapons would eventually be replaced by others, they warned.

MEND, which claims to be fighting for a fairer distribution of oil revenue, has also been seen as an umbrella organisation for criminal gangs. It is believed to have splintered, particularly over the amnesty.

The recent attacks come ahead of elections set for early next year. Jonathan, who is running in the elections, is from the Niger Delta and faces pressure to resolve the situation in the region.

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