Plans to free 4 foiled

Estelle Shirbon

Estelle Shirbon

ABUJA - A Nigerian militant group said yesterday it had foiled a plan by Italian oil company Agip to free four foreign hostages who have been held in the creeks of the oil-producing Niger Delta since early last month.

The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (Mend), which wants jailed leaders from the region freed in exchange for the three Italians and one Lebanese, said Agip had paid middlemen to try and get its four workers out.

A Nigerian spokesman for Agip declined to comment.

"[The plan] involved paying $545000 [about R3,7million] to those supposed to be guarding the hostages for the hostages to be guided to a point where a boat was to be stationed to take them out of the creeks," Mend said.

"A middleman brought the money to one of our camps where the attempt was immediately reported.

"Needless to say, the money has been confiscated and will be put to better use."

Mend said such plans endangered the lives of the hostages as their guards had orders to shoot them if any attempt was made to release them without authorisation.

Attacks on oil facilities and abductions of foreign oil workers have plagued the Niger Delta for years, but the violence worsened last year and is expected to escalate further in the build-up to Nigeria's general elections in April.

Nigeria, a member of Opec and the world's eighth-biggest exporter of crude, gets all its oil from the Niger Delta but the vast, impoverished region of mangrove-lined creeks and swamps has long been neglected by the central and local governments.

Mend, a faceless group which emerged in late 2005, launched a series of raids on oil facilities last February which shut down over a fifth of Nigeria's oil production capacity.

The group this week said that Roberto Dieghi, one of the hostages, was suffering from various ailments and it would allow doctors from the humanitarian organisation Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) to visit him.

Mend said on Sunday that it had moved the four hostages after discovering that a local government official had managed to smuggle a mobile phone to them. - Reuters