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U S and British hostages freed in Nigeria

Written by: Staff
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WARRI, Nigeria, Mar 27 (Reuters) Nigerian militants freed three foreign oil workers today after five weeks in captivity, but threatened more attacks on oil facilities in the world's eighth largest exporter of crude.

The three men, two Americans and one Briton, were handed to the governor of Nigeria's southern Delta state by an ethnic Ijaw leader who had been negotiating with the militants on behalf of the government.

''(The three) are in very good health and high spirits,'' said Abel Oshevire, a spokesman for Delta state. ''Of course, they are a bit agitated after a month in captivity.'' The rebel Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) had demanded a greater share of the region's huge oil wealth, the release of two jailed Ijaw leaders and compensation for oil pollution as conditions for freeing the hostages.

However, they said today that the release was unconditional and did not mean an end to the three-month campaign of sabotage against oil pipelines and platforms that has already cut oil output by a quarter.

''This does not signify an end to our attacks. Hostage keeping is a distraction and ties down our units to this irrelevant enterprise,'' they said in an e-mail to Reuters.

''We will concentrate our attacks now solely on oil facilities and workers found on these facilities.'' Their raids have forced oil companies to cut 630,000 barrels a day of oil production in the leading OPEC member, and they have previously threatened to cut another million barrels a day with a major attack this month.

President Olusegun Obasanjo is due to fly to Washington on Tuesday and pressure had been building up for an end to the standoff over the hostages.

WAVE OF ATTACKS MEND militants originally captured nine foreign oil workers on Feb. 18 during a wave of attacks on oil facilities, but six were released on March 1.

It was the second bout of kidnapping and oil facility attacks by the group since January.

February's attacks followed an army assault on communities in the Gbaramatu area of Delta state that the government accused of involvement in oil theft. The military commander who ordered the assault has since been removed.

MEND said today that the hostages were taken only to act as human shields to protect the Gbaramatu area and were released unconditionally after the threat of attack subsided.

Ijaw activists have been working behind the scenes to resolve the three-month-old crisis, and some saw the hostage release as a possible first step in that direction.

''Now that MEND have shown good faith it is of utmost urgency that we move to the dialogue table to discuss the issues raised,'' said Oronto Douglas, an Ijaw activist nominated by MEND to mediate talks with the government.

''If the issues they proposed are discussed with a view to the attainment of justice, it will lead to a final resolution of the matter,'' he told Reuters by telephone.

The majority of people in the delta have seen few benefits from decades of oil extraction that has yielded billions of dollars in profits for the government and foreign oil companies.

Vast areas of the delta are not connected to the national power grid. There is no clean water in many places. There are few roads. Teachers and doctors are in short supply.

The environment has been wrecked by oil spills and the constant burning of gas associated with the extraction of oil.

Militants, often armed and funded with the proceeds of crude oil theft, roam the mangrove-lined waterways of the vast delta in speedboats.

Analysts say Nigerian governments, during almost three decades of military dictatorship as well as during periods of civilian rule, have seen it as being in their interests to control the oil by keeping the delta poor, divided and insecure.

REUTERS SY RN1517

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