Nigerian army says frees more hostages in oil delta

By Segun Owen

WARRI, Nigeria (Reuters) - The Nigerian army said on Sunday it had freed four more foreign hostages from the western Niger Delta during an operation to flush out militants which rights groups say has displaced thousands of villagers.

The military has used helicopters and gunboats against militant camps in the creeks around the town of Warri in recent days, its strongest show of force for months.

The militants said they had retaliated by blowing up two oil and gas pipelines in the heartland of Africa's biggest energy industry but there was no independent confirmation of this.

"In continuation of our search-and-rescue operation, our men rescued four Ukrainian hostages today around the Kunukunuma area of Delta state. The men are with us in Warri now," military spokesman Colonel Rabe Abubakar said.

Militants have taken more than 200 foreign hostages in the Niger Delta in recent years, most of them quickly released after payment of a ransom. It was not immediately clear when the Ukrainians were kidnapped.

The Ukrainians bring to 17 the number of hostages the army says it has released since starting its offensive in the creeks around Warri on Friday, when it rescued nine Filipinos and four Nigerians from a major militant camp.

Local rights groups said the military's use of helicopter gunships in recent days had triggered a "mass evacuation" of villagers and urged restraint by the security forces. It asked both sides to allow humanitarian access to those displaced.

"There is no doubt there are casualties from the current clashes who need urgent medical attention and there are thousands more who have fled their villages without adequate food or water," three local rights groups said in a statement.

Reuters reporters saw dozens of displaced villagers sheltering in Ogbe-Ijoh hospital on the outskirts of Warri.

"NIBBLING AT OIL INFRASTRUCTURE"

The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) said it had sabotaged two oil and gas pipelines near to Escravos which supply the 110,000 barrels per day (bpd) Kaduna refinery in northern Nigeria, shut down for maintenance in November.

"We have begun nibbling again at the oil infrastructure. Already, two major trunk pipe and gas lines which were recently repaired have been blown up," MEND said in an e-mail to media.

A private security contractor said there were also reports of an explosion overnight at a manifold operated by Royal Dutch Shell's local unit in neighbouring Bayelsa state. Shell said it was checking but had no immediate confirmation.

Insecurity in the Niger Delta means the OPEC member's oil output, currently around 1.8 million bpd, is running at less than two-thirds capacity, curbing foreign revenues and putting an additional strain on government finances.

But global crude oil markets have largely ignored the latest clashes, closing lower in two of the last three sessions.

The military has said it cannot "fold its hands" while the country's mainstay industry is under threat and warned that it would continue its offensive.

The security forces said Friday's helicopter and gunboat strikes had destroyed a camp run by Government Tompolo, a leader of a faction of MEND known as the Federated Niger Delta Ijaw Communities (FNDIC).

The rescued Filipinos told reporters that two of their compatriots were killed and at least five others were wounded by crossfire. MEND said Tompolo had survived the assault.

MEND said it had moved Matthew Maguire, a British oil worker held hostage since last September, to Delta state, the scene of the latest fighting. The group has in the past used foreigners as "human shields" to discourage the military from using force.

(Additional reporting by Hannington Osodo in Warri, Nick Tattersall in Lagos and Austin Ekeinde in Port Harcourt; Writing by Nick Tattersall; editing by Ralph Boulton)

Article Published: 17/05/2009