- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 29, 2006

LAGOS, Nigeria (AP) — Gunmen raided a compound used by South Korea’s Daewoo oil company in Nigeria’s restive south, fleeing in speedboats with nearly $300,000 in cash, police said yesterday.

Nearly two dozen armed men forced their way into the riverside compound at the oil region center of Port Harcourt on Saturday for the theft of $285,000 in Nigerian naira before speeding away in three boats, said Ireju Barasua, a police spokeswoman in the city.

No casualties were reported, Ms. Barasua said. Daewoo officials were not available for comment.

A rash of violence and hostage takings that began earlier this month in the area of swamps and creeks has left more than two dozen dead, cut exports and helped push up prices of crude worldwide. It was the second such armed robbery in days in the oil-producing region in Nigeria, Africa’s largest petroleum exporter.

Attackers in military fatigues on Tuesday raided the riverside offices of Italian oil company Agip SpA in Port Harcourt, killing nine persons, eight of them police officers, before fleeing with about $28,000, police said.

Also in recent days, militants reportedly holding four foreign hostages in the region warned the military against making any attempt to free them by force as two Nigerian newspapers published a photograph of the hostages for the first time since their Jan. 11 abduction from an oil platform.

The photos published Friday showed the four — an American, a Briton, a Bulgarian and a Honduran — sitting on white plastic chairs under palm trees at an undisclosed location. Several men were behind them, one sitting next to several automatic rifles mounted on tripods.

In a statement e-mailed Saturday to the Associated Press, the group claiming to hold the men accused Nigeria of planning military action with unidentified foreign countries “in a last ditch effort to release the hostages.”

“Any attempt to employ military force … shall be the greatest military mistake ever,” the statement said.

It was signed by Brutus Ebipadei, purported leader of the Movement for the Emancipation of Niger Delta, which claims to be holding the hostages. The statement’s authenticity could not be verified independently, but it came from an address used in the past by the same group.

In exchange for the hostages, the militant group is demanding the release of Mujahid Dokubo-Asari, the oil region’s best-known militia leader, who was jailed in September on treason charges.

The group also is calling on Royal Dutch Shell PLC to pay $1.5 billion in compensation for oil pollution.

The militants also have said they want to secure local control of oil wealth for the impoverished ethnic minorities in the Niger Delta, who accuse bigger ethnic groups from other regions of Nigeria of denying them access to oil wealth.

In the past two decades, oil companies in the Niger Delta have faced frequent disruptions to their operations, including protests, pipeline sabotage and kidnappings.

The current hostage crisis is one of the longest, surpassed only by the monthlong detention of two foreign helicopter pilots in 2002, Nigerian oil-industry officials said.

With a daily export capacity of 2.5 million barrels, Nigeria is Africa’s leading oil producer. It is also the fourth-biggest source of U.S. oil imports.

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