A day after three French workers and a Thai colleague were seized off the Nigerian coast, the main rebel group in the oil-rich delta region said Thursday it had located the four men and was negotiating their release.
Nigeria’s main rebel group in the oil-rich Niger Delta claimed to have located three French nationals and another hostage a day after they were seized. The group is trying to negotiate their release with their captors.
The three Frenchmen and a Thai colleague were seized in an overnight raid Wednesday after pirates boarded an oil industry supply vessel off the coast of Nigeria.
In a statement released Thursday, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) said it could “confirm that it has located the three abducted French nationals and another individual” and that the group was “in negotiations with the abductors towards effecting a transfer of the men to the custody of MEND.”
One of the largest militant groups in the oil-rich yet poverty-stricken delta region, MEND claims to expose the oppression of the local inhabitants and the environmental devastation in the densely populated area.
Critics however accuse MEND of functioning as an umbrella for several armed groups that have attacked and exacerbated the conflict in the violence-ridden region.
Reporting for FRANCE 24 from the southern Nigerian city of Lagos, AFP correspondent Susan Njanji-Matetakufa said MEND’s latest statement was an attempt to reiterate that the shadowy group was not involved in the kidnapping of the three French and one Thai national.
TOP STORY - FRANCE HIT BY AFRICAN KIDNAPPINGS
“At the same time, MEND is trying to show that they are more on-the-ground than the authorities and they’re more familiar with the terrain,” said Njanji-Matetakufa.
The movement's insurgency badly hit oil operations in the Niger Delta from 2002 until last year, when thousands of fighters handed in their weapons under a government amnesty.
‘A classic act of piracy’
The abduction of the three Frenchmen in Nigeria was the second hostage crisis to grip French workers in West Africa following last week’s kidnapping of five Frenchmen in neighbouring Niger.
Al Qaeda's North African branch AQIM has claimed responsibility for last week’s kidnapping of five French nationals and two other foreigners working for French nuclear firm Areva and construction group Vinci.
In an interview with FRANCE 24 Wednesday, French Defence Minister Hervé Morin played down speculation that the hostage-takers may have had a political motive, noting that "everything points to it being a classic act of piracy."
The men's employer in Nigeria, French maritime services firm Bourbon, and the French foreign ministry said they had contacted the kidnapped workers' families and were working with Nigerian authorities to secure their release.
Bourbon has also set up a crisis cell in the French town of Marseille.
There have been no reports of ransom demands.
Conflicting reports on the raid
A Nigerian navy spokesman told the AFP that naval patrol boats tried to fight off the pirates in a gun battle overnight Wednesday that lasted more than two hours.
The Nigerian navy is responsible for patrolling the Niger Delta and guards offshore oil installations.
Navy spokesman David Nabaida told the AFP that the three French and a Thai seamen -- crew of the oil industry supply vessel -- were seized in the overnight raid on an oil platform off Bonny Island, Nigeria's main export terminal.
But the MEND statement, which was signed by spokesman Jomo Gbono, said the French crew and the Thai seaman were taken in separate incidents.
The statement however gave no details on who the kidnappers were.
The Gulf of Guinea, south of Nigeria, is one of the world's most notorious pirate hunting grounds, and ships working in the region's huge oil industry are often targeted by kidnap and ransom gangs.
Bourbon has been the target of several attacks in the past two years in the Niger Delta oil-producing area.
Nine Bourbon workers were taken hostage along with their ship in January last year and freed a few days later. In October 2008 another of its ships was seized by pirates off the Nigerian coast.
Date created : 2010-09-23