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Last Updated: Friday, 27 January 2006, 15:46 GMT
Nigeria gang issue hostage photo
Four foreign oil workers held captive in Nigeria
The picture of the hostages showed them apparently in good health
Nigerian kidnappers holding four foreign oil workers have issued a first picture of the captives, who appear relaxed and in good health.

But the gang denied reports they were close to handing over their captives.

In e-mails to journalists, the group holding the men said the foreigners were "going nowhere".

The men were seized 17 days ago in the oil-producing Niger Delta region in an armed raid by militants demanding more control over resources.

Despite the kidnappers' denials, Nigerian government officials continue to suggested that the four men could be freed soon.

"The hostages are safe. We're almost getting there. The negotiators have been able to make an agreement and very soon they will be released," Bayelsa state government spokesman Ekiyor Welson told the AFP news agency.

State negotiators and security chiefs released the image of the four hostages - a Briton, an American, a Bulgarian and one man from Honduras, according to AFP.

Nigeria's President Olusegun Obasanjo also said negotiations were going well.

Companies concerned

However, the kidnappers' denial came twinned with threats of imminent new attacks.

"I promised you the hostages were going nowhere in spite of the rumours and repeat that to you," the e-mail read.

The group holding the men, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, has launched several attacks on oil interests in the region.

They are demanding the release of two ethnic Ijaw leaders currently in detention and want more of the Niger Delta's oil wealth to go to local people.

Royal Dutch Shell, the largest oil producer in the Niger Delta, has cut production capacity and withdrawn hundreds of staff pending discussion on security with Nigeria's government.

Oil workers' unions in Nigeria have threatened to withdraw members from the main oil-producing region unless the government moves to improve security.

The instability has led to a 10% fall in Nigeria's oil production. The country is Africa's leading oil exporter and the fifth-biggest source of US oil imports, but despite its oil wealth, many Nigerians live in abject poverty.

On Tuesday unidentified gunmen in speedboats stormed the offices of Italian firm Agip, stealing tens of thousands of dollars and killing at least nine people in the main Niger Delta town, Port Harcourt.


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