LAGOS, Oct 21 (Reuters) Heavily armed 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 raid last night was the first big attack on an oil facility in five months since the inauguration of President Umaru Yar'Adua, who had started a peace process to address rebel demands for more regional autonomy in the oil-producing wetlands of southern Nigeria.
''Seven people were kidnapped from a supply vessel to the EA field. They are four Nigerians and three expats,'' said Olav Ljose, a spokesman for Royal Dutch Shell , which operates the offshore field.
He confirmed that the three foreigners were a Briton, a Croat and a Russian.
All other workers have been evacuated from the facility, which has not produced any oil since an earlier militant attack in February 2006. It had been expected to resume production by the middle of next year.
Security sources said the attackers armed with assault rifles came in up to 30 boats, engaged troops in a three-hour gunfight and made away with the support vessel on which the hostages had been working. One person was injured.
No group has claimed responsibility.
''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.
Militant attacks and abductions since February 2006 have forced Western companies to reduce Nigerian oil production by a fifth, contributing to a rise in global oil prices.
ARREST Yar'Adua has 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 Sept. 23 threatened to resume attacks on oil facilities and to abduct foreign workers in response to 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 also 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 have failed because the so-called elders and supposed militants who accepted bribes to betray one of their own cannot bring the peace,'' it added.
The attack is a setback for Shell's plan to resume production from the western Niger Delta, including the EA field off the coast of Bayelsa state.
The company reduced output in the western delta by 477,000 barrels per day (bpd) after the attacks in February 2006 and had been working to recover most of the lost output by the middle of next year.
REUTERS SKB MIR KP1641