Nigerian rebels hijack oil ship, hold 15 sailors

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LAGOS, Nigeria (CGN) — Nigerian rebels said they hijacked an oil industry ship and were holding 15 foreign sailors hostage Thursday and demanded that all oil workers leave the southern Niger Delta by Saturday.

Fighters from the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta said in a statement they hijacked the ship late Wednesday, then destroyed five gunboats in attacks on two military bases Thursday morning, a day after clashing with security forces.

Military spokesman Col. Rabe Abubakar said two oil ships had been attacked and some crew members were believed to be detained but he had no further details Thursday.

Nigeria is Africa’s biggest crude producer. After years of militant activity and lack of maintenance on crucial oil infrastructure, Nigeria currently produces about 1.6 million barrels of crude per day, or about one quarter less than its stated capacity.

The violence this week ended months of relative calm after the militants had declared a unilateral cease-fire in their three-year campaign for more oil wealth to be invested in the impoverished southern region.

The conflict has been marked by gunbattles, sabotage on oil wells and pipelines and the kidnapping of hundreds of foreign oil workers for ransom. Hostages are normally released unharmed after a ransom is paid.

The militant group on Thursday extended by 48 hours its ultimatum for the evacuation of all oil workers from the Delta region. It said companies must remove workers by Saturday, when the militants plan to declare the region a no-fly zone.

The group’s imprisoned leader is on trial for treason and arms smuggling, and the indictment against him says he sourced or purchased surface-to-air missiles. That raises the possibility that militants could be capable of shooting down aircraft and makes the no-fly zone threat more ominous.

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