Gunmen seize 7 workers from Nigerian oilfield

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LAGOS, Oct 21 (Reuters) Gunmen in speedboats kidnapped seven workers including three foreigners from an offshore Nigerian oilfield in a major setback to peace in the Niger Delta.

The three contractors to Royal Dutch Shell , a Croat, a Russian and a Briton, were taken from a support vessel at the EA field off the southern state of Bayelsa last night after a three-hour gunfight with troops, security sources said today.

''There was a long drawn-out battle and three were taken from a support vessel,'' a security source at an oil company said.

Four Nigerians were also kidnapped, Shell said. No group has claimed responsibility. The EA field has been halted since an attack in February 2006.

It was the first attack of this type since the inauguration in May of President Umaru Yar'Adua, who started a peace process to address demands for more regional autonomy by armed groups in the Niger Delta.

The attack is also a setback for Shell's plan to resume production from the western Niger Delta. The company reduced output there by 477,000 barrels per day (bpd) after the attacks in February 2006.

''This punctures the idea that things are coming back to normal,'' a government official said, asking not to be named.

Nigeria is Africa's top oil producer.

Another security source said the gunmen came in up to 30 speed boats and left with the support vessel on which the hostages had been working.

Militant attacks and abductions since Feb. 2006 have forced Western oil companies to reduce Nigerian oil production by a fifth, contributing to a global oil price rally.

ARREST Yar'Adua had made contact with the main armed groups in preparation for formal talks before the end of the year but militants were angered by the arrest last month of a prominent rebel leader, Henry Okah, in Angola.

The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) on September 23 threatened to resume attacks on oil facilities and to abduct foreign workers in response to the arrest.

Militant activists suspect Nigeria of having a hand in the arrest. Nigeria has asked Angola to send Okah to Nigeria to stand trial but the two countries have no extradition treaty.

Delta activists say the government has been dragging its feet in the peace talks and offering incentives to militant negotiators instead of addressing their underlying grievances.

''If the oil companies and the Nigerian government do not handle the situation well, they will bring out the beast in us,'' MEND said in an e-mail to Reuters before the attack yesterday.

''The divide and rule tactics has failed because the so-called elders and supposed militants who accepted bribes to betray one of their own cannot bring the peace.'' Shell had been working with coastal communities near the EA field to ensure a smooth restart. Only last week it signed an agreement promising to provide jobs, boats and other benefits.

Before the latest attack, Shell had been expected to resume production of 115,000 bpd from the EA field by the middle of 2008.

REUTERS SKB BD1530

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