- The Washington Times - Friday, February 24, 2006

NIGER DELTA, Nigeria — Armed militants wearing black masks and military fatigues showed off a 68-year-old American hostage to reporters and released photos of eight other foreigners seized a week ago by a group demanding a greater share of Nigeria’s oil wealth.

Nine militants carrying Kalashnikov assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenade launchers carried the captive, who identified himself as Macon Hawkins of Kosciusko, Texas, by boat in the Niger Delta.

The 15-minute meeting was held in the middle of the river with the militants in one boat and journalists in two others.

The militants reiterated demands for a third party to mediate an end to the crisis before returning the hostage to a boat, firing their weapons into the air and setting off into one of the delta’s creeks.

Mr. Hawkins, unshaven with gray hair, said the captives were “being treated quite well. Just let’s hope it ends well.”

The hostages — three Americans, two Egyptians, two Thais, one Briton and one Filipino — were seized in a Feb. 18 assault on a barge belonging to Houston-based oil services company Willbros Group Inc., which was laying pipeline for oil giant Royal Dutch Shell.

The militants are demanding a greater share of oil wealth for their impoverished region, which has remained poor despite the large amounts of oil flowing from it. Nigeria is Africa’s top crude producer, exporting 2.5 million barrels a day.

Mr. Hawkins said he would turn 69 on March 1. Asked what he wanted for his birthday, he replied “freedom,” and laughed heartily.

He said his lunch yesterday consisted of eggs, noodles and tea. He had a box of juice with him and a jar of peanuts.

The presentation came as militants issued photos Thursday and yesterday of people they claimed were the nine kidnapped foreigners. In an e-mail, they also threatened more attacks on oil workers and the country’s vulnerable oil industry.

The militants released a separate statement saying the photos, which appeared slightly out of focus, were “pictures of our hostages with a section of the unit that secured their capture.”

They denied reports that any negotiations were taking place to secure the hostages’ release but called for independent mediators.

Hostage takings have been a common occurrence in the volatile delta for years. Most of those kidnapped are released unharmed, including four foreigners held for 19 days last month.

A Nigerian court, meanwhile, ordered Shell to pay southern communities $1.5 billion in compensation for environmental pollution and degradation in the Delta.

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