Hostages Freed, Back with Employers


Masked Militants in the creeks

Nigeria’s security forces handed 19 foreign and local hostages to their employers  yesterday after freeing them from militant camps in the creeks of the Niger Delta  oil region.


The hostages- two Americans, two Frenchmen, two Indonesians, one Canadian and 12  Nigerians — were rescued late on Wednesday, Charles Omoregie, commander of a  military taskforce in the Niger Delta, said.

The release of the hostages is a victory for President Goodluck Jonathan’s  administration at a time when militants, who have in the past caused major  disruption to the OPEC member’s mainstay oil industry, looked to be staging a  comeback.

Jonathan is the first head of state from the Niger Delta and brokered an amnesty  with the millitants last year.

Resurgent unrest, including car bombings claimed by the oil region’s main militant  group in Abuja on October 1, risked undermining his credibility ahead of elections  next April.

“Anyone who thinks they can hold the government hostage should rethink,” Jonathan’s  aide Hassan Tukur said in London.

Jonathan commended the military for accomplishing the operation “without any  bloodshed or loss of innocent lives” and said retraining programmes for those  “genuine militants” who took the amnesty last year would continue.

Omoregie said the military had taken over several suspected militant camps in the  region’s three main states including those run by a newly emerging kingpin, known as  Obese. “Two camps have been taken over in Delta, two in Bayelsa and three in Rivers  … The hostages were all rescued from Obese’s camp here in Rivers state after a  sustained military operation,” he said.

He said the raids started on Monday and that Obese, thought to be a new field  commander of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) militant  group, had contacted the security forces via former militant leaders who accepted  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,  adding Obese was now on the run.

There were no arrests or deaths, according to Omoregie, suggesting the military  facilitated the hostages’ exit after negotiations rather than freeing them by force.

Previous kidnappings in the Niger Delta have ended after a ransom payment, but  Omoregie said no money changed hands.

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The seven expatriates were taken from an offshore oil rig operated by exploration  firm Afren on 7November.  Eight of the Nigerians were abducted from an Exxon Mobil  platform a week later, while the remaining four were employees of local construction  firm, Julius Berger.

One hostage, Canadian Robert Croke, described the ordeal.

“It was a shocking experience. They gave us mattresses to sleep on, virtually  nothing else. We were begging for food and water because what we had was exhausted,”  he told reporters.

MEND claimed responsibility for the attacks on Afren and Exxon and had warned of  more strikes against the oil industry. It had also warned the security forces  against any operation to free the hostages, saying it would endanger their lives.

“The operation lasted until about 3 a.m.  It was a joint effort involving the air  force, army, navy, police and state security service,” said a military officer  involved in the rescue who declined to be named.

Omoregie praised the role that former MEND field commanders including Boyloaf and  Farah Dagogo, who accepted last year’s amnesty, played in ensuring the release of  the hostages.

He said Obese, whom security sources have said for months has been behind a spate of  recent kidnappings,  had contacted Dagogo to say he was ready to release the  captives.

“What happened last night is massive … It seems the old field commanders worked  with the military on the operations. We’ve not seen this before,” said Peter  Sharwood-Smith, Nigeria country manager for security consultancy Drum Cussac.

“This is a great success for the government and military … (The former field  commanders) signed up to the amnesty and despite everything, what they want is  investment and development and that isn’t going to happen while fighting continues.”

Previous campaigns by MEND fighters have knocked out a significant chunk of  Nigeria’s oil production, currently averaging around 2.2 million barrels per day  (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 includes  military service chiefs, the president’s security adviser and the head of the police  force, were meeting to discuss the latest developments in the Niger Delta.

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