Nigerian Army Says 50 Arrested Over Kidnappings

The Nigerian army on Saturday said it had arrested more than 50 militants suspected of involvement in a string of recent kidnappings of oil workers, including foreigners.

(AFP)

Nigerian authorities freed the 19 hostages seized in the Niger Delta region on Wednesday.

The Nigerian army on Saturday said it had arrested more than 50 militants suspected of involvement in a string of recent kidnappings of oil workers, including foreigners.

The military said its smoked out the gang in an operation that lasted eight hours when its troops encircled a camp in southern Nigeria's main oil producing region on Friday.

"The gang leader and over 50 of his members" were rounded up after special military forces raided a camp in oil-rich Rivers state in southern Nigeria, spokesman for the special taskforce Timothy Antigha told AFP.

He said the gang was responsible for the kidnapping of 19 oil workers, including several foreigners, in recent weeks.

"They were the group that abducted the Exxon Mobil workers and the Afren group workers and were responsible for other previous kidnappings and robberies in the past," said Antigha.

The military had in an operation on Wednesday night freed the 19 hostages from the creeks of the Niger Delta region, the heart of one of the world's largest oil industries. The victims included American, Canadian, French, Indonesian and Nigerian nationals.

The gang was captured from Bokokiri in Degema local government area of Rivers state during an operation that lasted eight hours on Friday, one senior military official told AFP.

"We had surrounded the whole place and ...so they had to surrender. They were forced to surrender because of fire power," said the official who took part in the raid.

The source however said in all 62 militants were arrested.

"They didn't deny any of the crimes and said they are sorry for what they did," the source told AFP.

In total, two Americans, two French, two Indonesians, a Canadian and 12 Nigerians were kidnapped in recent weeks.

The main Nigerian militant group MEND had on Friday threatened more kidnappings of oil workers after the military rescued the 19 hostages earlier.

The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) had claimed responsibility for 14 of the hostages. The relationship between MEND and the arrested gang could not be immediately established.

MEND also claimed in a statement on Friday that its fighters had ambushed a convoy of Nigerian army gunboats and killed a number of soldiers, but the military spokesman said he was not aware of such an attack.

Over 30 rifles, some 10,000 rounds of ammunition and 12 machine guns were recovered during Friday's raid on the camp the military said was headed by one Obese Kuna.

Recent attacks on oil installations in the turbulent Niger Delta had signaled a new round of abductions in the region after an amnesty programme last year.

Unrest in the Niger Delta before the government offered the amnesty deal had slashed production in one of the world's largest oil exporters and an OPEC member.

The amnesty was credited with greatly reducing unrest in the region and oil production has rebounded to an estimated 2.2 million barrels per day but there has been a new round of attacks in recent months.

The recent attacks come ahead of crunch elections set for early next year. President Goodluck Jonathan, who is running in the elections, is from the Niger Delta and faces pressure to resolve the situation in the region.

Many observers say the amnesty has failed to address underlying issues of poverty and unemployment in the Niger Delta. Militant leaders given stipends in exchange for turning in their weapons would eventually be replaced by others, they warned.

MEND, which claims to be fighting for a fairer distribution of oil revenue, has also been seen as an umbrella organisation for criminal gangs. It is believed to have splintered, particularly over the amnesty.