LAGOS, Nigeria â€“ A military raid freed 19 hostages held in Nigeria’s oil-rich southern delta Wednesday night, a negotiator said, striking a stunning blow to a resurgent militancy in a region vital to U.S. oil supplies.
The negotiator, who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity, said the operation freed seven expatriate workers kidnapped Nov. 8 from an oil rig working an offshore field for London-based Afren PLC. Another seven Nigerian hostages came from an attack carried out Sunday on an Exxon Mobil Corp. rig operating nearby. The origin of the remaining hostages remained unclear Wednesday night.
Others kidnapped included workers for construction company Julius Berger Nigeria PLC.
The negotiator spoke on condition of anonymity as the operation to free the hostages was still ongoing. An Afren spokesman declined to immediately comment Wednesday night, and officials with Exxon Mobil did not immediately return a call for comment.
Those kidnapped from the Afren rig include two U.S. workers, one Canadian, two French and two Indonesians. Among those hostages are James Robertson of Silver Creek, Mississippi, and Canadian Bob Croke of Newfoundland.
Robertson’s mother, Brenda Robertson, told The Associated Press that her family received word of her son’s release hours ago and have been celebrating ever since. She said her 47-year-old son was a father of four children and had previously warned his family about the possibility that he may become a hostage in Nigeria’s restive southern delta.
“He said, ‘Mama, don’t worry because all they want is money and they’ll take care of us,'” Brenda Robertson said. “I gave it over to God and he took care of it.”
The French Foreign Ministry issued a statement Wednesday night saying it welcomed the release of the two French hostages, calling the moment “a happy ending.”
New Foreign Minister Michele Alliot-Marie “would like to warmly thank all those who contributed to this release, in particular the Nigerian authorities,” the statement said
A contingent of militants who claimed they belonged to the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, also known by the acronym MEND, said they kidnapped the foreign workers. Militants began a campaign of pipeline bombings and high-profile kidnappings in the region in 2006.
Militants in the delta, a region of winding creeks and mangroves about the size of Portugal, want more oil money to come to an area still gripped by abject poverty and pollution after more than 50 years of oil production. However, nebulous ties exist between militants, criminal gangs operating in the area and wealthy politicians who benefit from oil revenue in the region.
Lt. Col. Timothy Antigha, a military spokesman, said Wednesday night an operation to attack militant camps was ongoing in the region, but declined to comment further.
Nigeria, an OPEC-member nation, has seen its oil production rise to 2.2 million barrels a day since a government-sponsored amnesty program last year offered cash pay outs and the promise of job training to former fighters and commanders. The nation’s Bonny light crude remains popular with U.S. refineries as it can be easily refined into gasoline.
Despite the amnesty, a contingent of MEND fighters continued a campaign against the government, detonating two car bombs in the delta in March. Another set of car bombs claimed by the group exploded in the country’s capital during an Oct. 1 independence celebration, killing at least 12 and wounding dozens more.
Since the attack, South African authorities arrested Henry Okah, an alleged gunrunner long thought to be an organizer of MEND-branded attacks. Okah now faces terrorism charges stemming from the October bombing.
Associated Press writers Shelia Byrd in Jackson, Mississippi, and Angela Charlton in Paris contributed to this report.
Afren PLC: http://www.afren.com
Exxon Mobil Corp.: http://www.exxonmobil.com