- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 8, 2006

LAGOS, Nigeria — The government removed the commander of a military force sent to protect the country’s oil industry from separatist guerrillas yesterday as three Western hostages marked their 18th day in the Niger Delta swamps.

Brig. Gen. Elias Zamani — the head of a joint navy, police and army task force based in the oil port of Warri — has been transferred, said Group Capt. Eniola Akinduro, a spokesman at defense headquarters.

“It is not as if he committed any offense. It is a routine military exercise. The general has been on that post for more than two years. It is normal that he be moved to another area,” the spokesman said.

Ethnic Ijaw militants — who last month criticized Gen. Zamani for ordering helicopter gunship strikes on oil-smuggling barges in the delta creeks — welcomed the decision but said it did not go far enough.

Oboko Bello, the head of the radical Federated Niger Delta Ijaw Communities, said talks to secure the release of two Americans and one British hostage would progress more quickly if the general’s transfer was followed by the removal of his task force.

“We’re a civilian community. We don’t want this level of garrison,” he said by telephone from Warri. He is a member of a committee set up by Delta State Gov. James Ibori to arrange the release of the hostages.

A spokesman for the hostage takers was dismissive.

“For the communities in the area, I’m sure it will be good riddance to [bad] rubbish,” he said of Gen. Zamani’s transfer, in a message from an e-mail address used by the kidnappers.

“To us it makes no difference, as this will not solve the problems of the Niger Delta. The hostages are well but will not be released until the fulfillment of our stated conditions,” the message said.

The rebels have demanded the demilitarization of the delta, $1.5 billion in compensation from the oil company Shell for polluted fishing communities and the release of two jailed leaders of the Ijaw’s struggle to control oil resources.

In recent weeks, the rebels have attacked oil export facilities and pipelines, killed more than 20 government soldiers and kidnapped 13 foreign oil workers, most of whom have since been released.

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