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Last Updated: Monday, 27 March 2006, 09:26 GMT 10:26 UK
Nigeria militants release workers
The hostages with armed men behind them
Three of the nine hostages were held for more than a month
Nigerian militants have released three kidnapped Western oil workers held hostage for more than a month.

The two Americans and a Briton were handed over to government officials in Warri, 340km (210 miles) south-east of the commercial capital Lagos.

The men - all unharmed - were among a group of nine foreign workers kidnapped on 18 February. The other six were released after a week.

Their kidnappers want Nigeria's oil wealth to be shared more fairly.

The kidnapping was part of a wider recent campaign of attacks on Western targets in the main Niger Delta oil producing region.

The three released men, Americans Cody Oswald and Russell Spell and Briton John Hudspith, work for US engineering firm Willbros under contract to the Anglo-Dutch energy giant Shell.

Said to be in good health, they are expected to be flown out of the country shortly.

'Intense mediation'

The militants, from the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (Mend), said they would now stop taking hostages, in order to concentrate on attacking oil installations, reports the Reuters news agency.

Mend snatched the nine hostages in a gun battle on an oil company barge.

Map showing the Niger Delta region

The final three captives were released five weeks later under cover of darkness, brought in by boat from the creeks of the Niger Delta to Warri, says the BBC's Alex Last in Lagos.

He says the kidnappers held on for longer to what they called the "high-value" hostages because they wanted guarantees that there would be no military retaliation after the men were freed.

They have not given a reason for the timing of the release but there has been intense mediation by leaders of the local Ijaw people, including former militants, to secure their freedom, our correspondent says.

A member of the mediation team told the BBC that the militant group had understood that talks with the government could only proceed once the hostages were freed.

Delta state governor James Ibori denied that any ransom had been paid.

"Now that they have been released, the pertinent issues raised by the youths on the Niger Delta condition will have to be addressed," he said.

Mend is demanding an end to military operations in the Niger Delta, greater local control of the area's oil wealth and the release of two prominent local leaders.

The militants also want $1.5bn (860m) compensation from Shell for pollution in the Niger Delta.

Mend has threatened to carry out more attacks on oil industry targets if its demands are not met.

The group has already managed to cut Nigerian oil production by 25%, our correspondent says.

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