Nigerian delta militants release Italian hostages
Port Harcourt, Nigeria, Mar 15: Nigerian militants today released two Italian oil workers they had been holding hostage in remote creeks in the oil-producing Niger Delta for more than three months.
The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), which demands greater autonomy for Africa's top oil province, had seized the employees of oil company Saipem, a unit of ENI, in a raid on an oil export terminal on Dec 7.
MEND, which emerged in late 2005 and forced the closure of a fifth of Nigerian output with attacks on oil facilities in February 2006, said in a statement it would step up attacks on the facilities and stage bombings across the delta.
Agip, a subsidiary of ENI, and the Bayelsa state government are at the top of the group's ''to-do list'', MEND said, because the group blames them for helping a Lebanese hostage escape from its custody last month.
''We will take more hostages and concentrate on locations believed to be secure to dispel the false sense of security being felt by some in the oil industry and foreign industry watchers,'' it said in the email statement.
Heavily armed militants dropped the Italians, Francesco Arena and Cosma Russo, with a small group of journalists at an oil company boat yard on the outskirts of Port Harcourt.
They appeared to be in good health, but were sporting long beards and said they were suffering from stress.
Arena told Reuters: ''We were treated very well by the militants. We were in a jungle, they treated us better than they treated themselves,'' adding they had given him bottled water to drink.
Declinig Security MEND:
''The Italians were originally supposed to have been kept until the exit of the Nigerian despot,'' MEND said in the email, referring to President Olusegun Obasanjo, who is due to step down in May.
''Their premature release is in response to pleas from certain quarters, which could not be ignored. This will not be repeated for future captives we will shortly take for as long as the Nigerian government refuses to address our demands.'' MEND wants regional control over the delta's oil resources, the release of two jailed leaders from the area and compensation to delta villages for decades of oil pollution.
Kidnappings of foreign oil workers, mostly for ransoms, multiplied in the delta in January and February although most hostages have now been released.
The only expatriate still in captivity is a French contractor for oil company Total who was abducted by suspected ransom-seekers on Feb 7.
Oil companies have reinforced security across the vast wetlands region, and thousands of oil workers and their families have left because of declining security.
Poverty and a lack of basic public services due to corruption in government lie at the root of violence in the delta, which accounts for all oil production from OPEC member Nigeria, the world's eighth-biggest exporter of crude.
MEND has insisted that it does not take ransoms for its hostages, but many groups do, and the line between militancy and crime is blurred.