19th November, 2010
Nigeria’s security forces handed 19 foreign and local hostages to their employersÂ yesterday after freeing them from militant camps in the creeks of the Niger DeltaÂ oil region.
The hostages- two Americans, two Frenchmen, two Indonesians, one Canadian and 12Â Nigerians — were rescued late on Wednesday, Charles Omoregie, commander of aÂ military taskforce in the Niger Delta, said.
The release of the hostages is a victory for President Goodluck Jonathan’sÂ administration at a time when militants, who have in the past caused majorÂ disruption to the OPEC member’s mainstay oil industry, looked to be staging aÂ comeback.
Jonathan is the first head of state from the Niger Delta and brokered an amnestyÂ with the millitants last year.
Resurgent unrest, including car bombings claimed by the oil region’s main militantÂ group in Abuja on October 1, risked undermining his credibility ahead of electionsÂ next April.
“Anyone who thinks they can hold the government hostage should rethink,” Jonathan’sÂ aide Hassan Tukur said in London.
Jonathan commended the military for accomplishing the operation “without anyÂ bloodshed or loss of innocent lives” and said retraining programmes for thoseÂ “genuine militants” who took the amnesty last year would continue.
Omoregie said the military had taken over several suspected militant camps in theÂ region’s three main states including those run by a newly emerging kingpin, known asÂ Obese. “Two camps have been taken over in Delta, two in Bayelsa and three in RiversÂ … The hostages were all rescued from Obese’s camp here in Rivers state after aÂ sustained military operation,” he said.
He said the raids started on Monday and that Obese, thought to be a new fieldÂ commander of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) militantÂ group, had contacted the security forces via former militant leaders who acceptedÂ amnesty last year to tell them he was ready to surrender.
“The raid on his camp led to his decision to hand over the hostages,” Omoregie said,Â adding Obese was now on the run.
There were no arrests or deaths, according to Omoregie, suggesting the militaryÂ facilitated the hostages’ exit after negotiations rather than freeing them by force.
Previous kidnappings in the Niger Delta have ended after a ransom payment, butÂ Omoregie said no money changed hands.
The seven expatriates were taken from an offshore oil rig operated by explorationÂ firm Afren on 7November.Â Eight of the Nigerians were abducted from an Exxon MobilÂ platform a week later, while the remaining four were employees of local constructionÂ firm, Julius Berger.
One hostage, Canadian Robert Croke, described the ordeal.
“It was a shocking experience. They gave us mattresses to sleep on, virtuallyÂ nothing else. We were begging for food and water because what we had was exhausted,”Â he told reporters.
MEND claimed responsibility for the attacks on Afren and Exxon and had warned ofÂ more strikes against the oil industry. It had also warned the security forcesÂ against any operation to free the hostages, saying it would endanger their lives.
“The operation lasted until about 3 a.m.Â It was a joint effort involving the airÂ force, army, navy, police and state security service,” said a military officerÂ involved in the rescue who declined to be named.
Omoregie praised the role that former MEND field commanders including Boyloaf andÂ Farah Dagogo, who accepted last year’s amnesty, played in ensuring the release ofÂ the hostages.
He said Obese, whom security sources have said for months has been behind a spate ofÂ recent kidnappings,Â had contacted Dagogo to say he was ready to release theÂ captives.
“What happened last night is massive … It seems the old field commanders workedÂ with the military on the operations. We’ve not seen this before,” said PeterÂ Sharwood-Smith, Nigeria country manager for security consultancy Drum Cussac.
“This is a great success for the government and military … (The former fieldÂ commanders) signed up to the amnesty and despite everything, what they want isÂ investment and development and that isn’t going to happen while fighting continues.”
Previous campaigns by MEND fighters have knocked out a significant chunk ofÂ Nigeria’s oil production, currently averaging around 2.2 million barrels per dayÂ (bpd), and cost it as much as $1 billion a month in lost revenues.
Sources in the capital Abuja said the national security council, which includesÂ military service chiefs, the president’s security adviser and the head of the policeÂ force, were meeting to discuss the latest developments in the Niger Delta.