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Last Updated: Monday, 30 January 2006, 13:19 GMT
Nigeria militants free hostages
Freed hostages
The hostages were flown to Abuja to meet President Obasanjo
Four foreign oil workers held hostage in Nigeria for nearly three weeks have been freed.

The four men - an American, Briton, Bulgarian and Honduran - have now left the oil-producing Niger Delta region and met Nigeria's president in Abuja.

"They are as well as could be hoped," a British diplomat said. Officials have denied that any ransom demand was paid.

The four were seized in an armed raid by militants demanding more control over oil resources for local residents.

The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta had also been demanding the release of two ethnic Ijaw leaders currently in detention and $1m in compensation for local communities affected by oil spills.

It has also carried out several attacks on oil interests in the region.

'No ransom paid'

Bayelsa spokesman Welson Ekiyor told the BBC's Network Africa programme that the four were "in beautiful condition... looking well-fed".

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He denied that any money had been paid for their release or that their other demands had been met.

The BBC's Alex Last in Lagos says that generally kidnappings in the Niger Delta have been settled with a cash payment, though the oil companies and government deny paying ransoms.

The group, however, denied that the release meant they were softening their goal "to destroy the oil export capability of the Nigerian government".

"We will shortly carry out significant attacks aimed at ensuring our February target of a 30% of Nigeria's export capacity," they said in an e-mail to Reuters news agency.

The group also denied that any money changed hands.

"I am very pleased indeed for them and for their families, and for the oil companies concerned as well as for the Nigerian government," said British Foreign Minister Jack Straw in Brussels.

Abject poverty

The four foreigners were captured on 11 January when heavily armed militia riding in speedboats boarded their oil industry supply vessel.

The boat's US skipper, Patrick Landry, British security expert Nigel Watson-Clark and engineers Milko Nichev of Bulgaria and Harry Ebanks of Honduras were held hostage in the swamps and creeks of the delta.

In the latest attack on oil companies in the Niger Delta, armed robbers attacked the offices of the South Korean Daewoo company near the region's main city Port Harcourt and made off with some $300,000 worth of cash on Saturday, police say.

The incidents have led to Shell, the largest oil producer in the Niger Delta, cutting production capacity and withdrawing hundreds of staff pending discussion on security with Nigeria's government.

Nigeria 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.

The country's oil production has fallen 10% since instability worsened in the Niger Delta.


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