By Austin Ekeinde
PORT HARCOURT, Nigeria – Three foreign oil workers, including an Italian, were kidnapped from a car under armed escort in Nigeria’s oil capital Port Harcourt on Thursday, a day after a U.S. oil executive was shot dead in the same city.
>Police and industry sources said the abduction of the employees of Italian oil contractor Saipem was sparked by a dispute between the company and the community where it is working and that efforts were under way to secure their release.
“There are positive signs the people will be okay. By tomorrow the situation will be straightened out,” Rivers State Police Commissioner Samuel Agbetuyi told Reuters by telephone, adding that one suspected kidnapper had been arrested.
The militant Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), which has waged a campaign of attacks against the oil industry in the world’s eighth largest exporter, said it was not involved in the kidnapping.
Industry sources said the three men were travelling in two SUVs with a police escort when they were stopped by gunmen, who disarmed their security.
They were taken from the cars to a nearby boat on one of the multitude of mangrove-lined creeks that runs through the vast wetlands region.
The nationality of the other two was not immediately clear.
On Wednesday a gunman on a motorcycle shot dead a U.S. citizen working for Texan oil services company Baker Hughes in an apparently planned assassination. Diplomatic and oil industry sources said the killing was probably an isolated incident related to a work dispute.
Kidnapping is a fairly common method used by impoverished villagers in the lawless delta, suffering neglect from their own government, to extract benefits or cash from oil companies.
Port Harcourt is the largest city in the Niger Delta, which pumps all of Nigeria’s oil, and several multinationals have major offices there, including Royal Dutch Shell and Agip.
The kidnapping and killing add to a rising trend of violent crime and communal unrest in the vast wetlands region, which coincides with heightened political instability in Nigeria ahead of elections next year.
Militancy in Nigeria’s far south is fuelled by resentment among many delta inhabitants, who feel cheated out of the riches being pumped from their tribal lands.
Neglect and rampant corruption have eroded trust in government, while communal rivalries and abuses by the military have fuelled the rise of well-armed community militias.
They have taken advantage of the absence of law and order to engage in large-scale theft of crude oil, extortion, blackmail and kidnapping against oil companies, which rely on ill-equipped and poorly trained police and military to protect them.
MEND’s emergence in December has raised the stakes in the delta, because it introduced a more professional guerrilla tactics, more deadly firepower and a more focused political dimension to the violence. — Reuter