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Kidnappers grabbed seven foreign workers off a merchant ship Saturday in the latest hostage-taking in Nigeria’s restive southern oil-producing region, officials said. The  expatriates are said to all be  Philippino, but that information was not verified.

The ship, BACO Liner 2, was stopped and boarded around 9:30 a.m. yesterday morning as it plied the Chanomi Creek, a tributary that connects the Escravos and Forcados Rivers. It reportedly was bound for Warri in Bayelsa State.

The militants who abducted the ship’s crew members were said to be from Okorenkoko, the same group that kidnapped several Wilbros workers last years. Wilbros subsequently ceased working in Nigeria.

There are rumors among the expatriate community in Port Harcourt, that the ship was still occupied by militants as late as 8:00 pm local time last evening. The captain and some crew members were said to be held, but authorities have not verified those rumors.  Many families of foreign workers in the Niger Delta states of River, Delta, and Bayelsa, left the area before Christmas.

Helicopters, normally used to ferry workers to and from offshore facilitilies have, for the most part, been groundedsince the beginning of the year, due to the unusually long period of Harmattan winds the region is experiencing. The winds bring blowing sand storms to the delta.  When visibility is decreased to under 1500 feet, flying is suspended.

Crew changes out of Port Harcourt and Onne Port are being performed by crew boats. This is considered somewhat risky because many boats have been attacked by militants near shore.  Some boats working the Niger Delta are now carrying Nigerian Naval sailors armed with 50 caliber machine guns, according to workers in the Port Harcourt area.

Militants seeking to pressure the national government into giving more local control over the area’s oil resources have stepped up kidnappings since launching a wave of attacks on oil facilities in early 2006 that have cut oil exports by Africa’s biggest oil producer 25 percent.

A spokesman for Nigeria’s Delta state, Ozoene Sheddy, said the seven workers were taken off a merchant ship as it traveled in the coastal region of swamps and creeks.

Sheddy couldn’t give nationalities of the captives and had no further details. But Philippines nationals were believed among the captives, two private security officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak with journalists.

Militants behind dozens of kidnappings in recent months couldn’t immediately be reached for comment on the latest incident.

Nearly 100 foreign hostages, mostly oil workers, have generally been released unharmed, usually after a ransom is paid. However, a Briton and a Nigerian died in crossfire during a gunbattle between militants and Nigerian security forces trying to free the hostages.

On Thursday, militants released five Chinese hostages and one Italian who had been taken in separate incidents. Two Italians and one Lebanese remained in captivity.

The conflict stems from the deep poverty that afflicts the people of the Niger River delta despite the area’s production of tens of billions of dollars in oil revenue every year. Violence has cut oil production below 2 million barrels a day, compared to the previous 2.5 million.


Vanguard (Lagos)
Reuters Alert Net
Wordworks2001 is a retired US Army master sergeant who lives in Indiana and works in Nigeria, where he is currently located.  He blogs at http://wordworks2001.blogspot.com 

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