Hostage oil workers released in Nigeria-state govt

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ABUJA, Oct 22 (Reuters) All seven foreign hostages seized by gunmen from an offshore Nigerian oil field were released today after two days in captivity, a state government spokesman said.

The attack on Shell's EA field was the first big raid on an oil facility since President Umaru Yar'Adua took office in May and authorities are working hard to ensure it does not derail a nascent peace initiative in Africa's top oil producing region.

''All seven have been freed. They are in government house,'' said Ebimo Amungo, a spokesman for Bayelsa state government, where the kidnapping occurred.

A security sources earlier said that the Nigerian government was negotiating with the gunmen who seized the workers over the weekend.

Four Nigerians, a Briton, a Russian and a Croat were seized.

The attack had no immediate impact on oil output because the field was still halted after an earlier militant attack in February 2006. The field had been expected to restart by the middle of next year.

Shell said it evacuated all other staff from the EA field, which has a capacity of 115,000 barrels per day (bpd), and other companies also raised their security alert levels.

But industry officials said it was unlikely this attack would seriously affect Shell's plans to resume operations in the rest of the western Niger Delta, which accounts for another 360,000 bpd and was also closed in early 2006.

A person identifying himself as a member of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) sent an e-mail to the media on Sunday claiming responsibility for the raid, and demanding the release of a MEND leader, Henry Okah, from jail in Angola where he has been held for seven weeks.

But militant sources and government officials said the sender of that e-mail, who called himself Don Pedro, was likely not responsible for Saturday's raid.

The attackers were more likely a splinter group which has not yet been brought into the government's peace process and which could have been hired to stage the attack, they said.

However, security and government sources said it was possible those holding the hostages could be taken over by militants with a wider agenda, and could delay any resolution.

When Yar'Adua took office, he promised to address the grievances of militants in the delta whose attacks and kidnappings have crippled oil production and driven away thousands of foreign workers.

They are demanding greater regional control over the oil revenues, jobs and development in the anarchic wetlands.

Many armed groups have since formed into a committee and have been holding regular talks with government officials to prepare for a formal conference before the end of the year.

Many militants were angered by Okah's arrest and believe it demonstrates a lack of sincerity on the part of the Nigerian government, who they suspect of being behind the detention.

Jonjon Oyeinfie, a militant negotiator, criticised the government for taking what he called a ''contradictory approach'' to the peace talks, which are expected to resume this week.

REUTERS AE HS2307

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