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Nigerian kidnappers free 8 foreign oil workers

Written by: Staff

ABUJA, June 4 (Reuters) Kidnappers in Nigeria freed eight foreign oil workers today, two days after they were seized in an unprecedented raid on a rig far offshore that heightened fears in an oil industry hurt by a series of militant attacks.

Gunmen had captured six Britons, one American and one Canadian from a rig 40 miles out to sea on Friday. Two Britons were freed early today and the other men several hours later, local authorities and the British embassy said.

''They are all safe and well,'' said Johnny Iganiwari, information commissioner for Bayelsa state in the Niger Delta, where the men were held captive in remote mangrove swamps.

A British embassy spokesman said the men were being flown from the southern delta to Lagos, Nigeria's commercial capital, and they would then leave the country on various flights.

The abductions on Friday followed a series of militant attacks earlier this year that have shut down a quarter of oil output from OPEC member Nigeria, Africa's top producer.

Authorities declined to comment on whether a ransom had been paid, but a security source close to the situation said money had changed hands.

Kidnappings for ransoms are common in the Niger Delta, a vast, impoverished wetland that produces the bulk of Nigeria's 2.4 million barrels per day (bpd) of crude oil. Local people have seen few benefits from the industry.

RANSOMS Oil companies deny paying money to secure the release of kidnapped staff, but security analysts say they usually do pay up and this encourages abductions.

Poverty, graft, lawlessness and struggles over a lucrative trade in stolen crude fuel unrest in the delta.

The militant Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), whose attacks have forced the closure of about 550,000 barrels per day of oil production since February, said yesterday it was not involved in the latest abductions.

The kidnappers had not listed specific demands but wanted to force the oil companies to negotiate on a range of issues including employment for local people, environmental impact and development projects, sources from the companies involved said.

Attacks on facilities onshore or in shallow water are frequent in the Niger Delta, but security sources said they were unaware of any previous raid as far away from the shore as the Bulford Dolphin rig, where Friday's abductions took place.

The sophisticated night-time attack by 20 to 30 gunmen in speedboats showed that even deep offshore facilities are no longer safe in the world's eighth-biggest exporter of crude.

This places a question mark over the strategy of many oil companies which have been looking to avoid risks in the Niger Delta by turning to deepwater drilling in the Gulf of Guinea. Offshore facilities require huge investments.

The Bulford Dolphin rig is owned by the Norwegian oilfield services group Fred Olsen Energy ASA and leased to Nigerian firm Peak Petroleum, which operates it in partnership with Equator Exploration.

The attack had no impact on oil output as the facility is an exploration rig that will not produce crude for years.

Reuters SRS DB2329

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