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ABUJA – Nigerian kidnappers have released all 24 Filipino seamen they had been holding captive in the creeks of the oil-producing Niger Delta since January 20, the men’s employer, German shipping firm Baco-Liner, said on Tuesday.
The kidnappers said they had freed the men “on humanitarian grounds” without receiving any ransom, following the intervention of local elders and authorities. Most abductions in the anarchic Niger Delta are resolved after money changes hands.
“The Nigerian authorities have handed the vessel and its crew to us in Warri,” a spokesman for the company said, referring to the main city in the western delta.
He said the men were tired, but in good health. A replacement crew will be hired to sail the ship out of the Niger Delta, he added.
Another seven foreign hostages seized by different armed groups are still in captivity in the delta, where violence against expatriates and against the oil industry is on the rise. The remaining hostages are two Italians, one Lebanese, one American, two Filipinos and one Frenchman.
The kidnappers of the 24 Filipinos said they had seized the Baco-Liner 2 because it was “suspected to have been conveying arms and ammunition imported by top politicians in the country, to destabilize the 2007 general elections in the region.”
Nigeria is due to hold elections in April that should mark the first democratic transition from one civilian government to the next in Africa’s top oil producer.
The Baco-Liner spokesman said there were explosives on board the cargo ship but these were destined for oil companies that use them for exploration and had nothing to do with politics.
“We are not engaged in any smuggling whatsoever,” said the spokesman.
DIVISIONS AMONG REBELS
The kidnappers said they would take unspecified “further actions” unless Nigerian authorities met a series of demands including the release of two jailed leaders from the delta and the payment of compensation to local villages for oil spills.
The abduction of the 24 Filipinos exposed divisions among rebel groups in the delta.
The kidnappers said they were from the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), whose attacks a year ago forced the closure of 500,000 barrels per day in oil output, a fifth of Nigeria’s capacity. That production has not resumed.
But Jomo Gbomo, who has always spoken for MEND since the group emerged in late 2005, has repeatedly denied his group was involved in the abduction. He says a separate group was responsible and MEND does not share that group’s objectives.
Activist sources in the region say the group who kidnapped the Filipinos used to have links with Gbomo’s MEND about a year ago, but they had fallen out. MEND has sometimes worked with pre-existing militias whose agendas are based on local issues.
Poverty, lawlessness and a collapse in public services due to rampant corruption among government officials lie at the root of the problems in the Niger Delta, where the lines are blurred between political militancy and crime.
Most residents of the vast wetlands region live without clean water, electricity, roads or functional clinics and this fuels resentment toward the multibillion-dollar oil industry.
Attacks on oil facilities, kidnappings for ransom, smuggling of stolen oil, armed robberies and assaults on the security forces are all common. Many fear the situation will worsen ahead of April’s elections as armed thugs hired by politicians to intimidate their opponents spring into action.