NIGERIA: Nigerian Militants Free Six of Nine Foreign Hostages

U.S. hostage Macon Hawkins and five other foreign oil workers kidnapped last month by Nigerian militants were freed today.

Hawkins, from Kosciusko, Texas, traveled by boat to the southeastern city of Warri on his 69th birthday. The six hostages were part of a group of nine kidnapped on Feb. 18 from a Willbros Inc. vessel near the Forcados export platform run by the Nigerian venture of Royal Dutch Shell Plc.

``It's an experience that I won't want to do again,'' Hawkins, a diabetic, told reporters after his release. ``They treated me quite well, they called me `papa'. These boys are very sincere in what they are doing.''

Last month's kidnapping of the nine oil workers and attacks on a pipeline and the Forcados platform forced Shell to halt output of 455,000 barrels a day, or about 19 percent of daily output in Nigeria, Africa's top oil producer. Shell has closed all of its production in the western Niger delta region.

``We will commence with attacks in another area of the Niger delta with an aim to ensuring the total discontinuation of export of onshore crude oil,'' Jomo Gbomo, a spokesman for the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, or MEND, said in an e- mailed statement.

Hawkins was released to a group of journalists after they finished a tour of the creeks of the Niger delta. He was surrounded by several guards who wore black ski masks over their faces and brandished automatic rifles, rocket-propelled grenade launchers and magazines of bullets.

`Birthday Wish'

``We did this to grant Mr. Hawkins his birthday wish for freedom,'' Gbomo said in his statement.

Following his release, the militants freed hostages Muado Somsak and Arak Suwana of Thailand, Egyptians Bardese Mohammed and Aly Shady, and Tony Santos of the Philippines.

The remaining hostages include Cody Oswald and Russel Spell from the U.S., John Hudspith of the U.K.

Before freeing Hawkins, the militants read out a list of demands, the first of which was the establishment of a United Nations commission to address the problems of the region.

``Until the United Nations sets up a commission of inquiry to look into the problems of the Niger delta, the U.K. and U.S. should not come in,'' one of the militants on the boat with Hawkins said.

Hawkins, dressed in a blue and red checked shirt and canvas olive trousers, said his eyeglasses were damaged when the militants captured him. They were returned after one week with some masking tape around the lens of the left eye to repair the damage, he said.

Daily Routine

Hawkins said the hostages' daily routine consisted of getting up, brushing their teeth, washing clothes, followed by a mid-morning snack and then leisure time. They ate sardines, canned corned beef, noodles and rice. Special requests of the Muslim hostages were also honored, he said.

``They told me to tell Willbros: beware do not come back,'' Hawkins said.

In January, the militants kidnapped four oil workers from a Tidewater Inc. supply boat near the EA offshore field run by the Shell venture and held them for 19 days before releasing them unharmed.

Villagers living near Shell and Chevron Corp. oil installations in the area blamed the companies for polluting the environment. In parts of the creeks, oil spills were visible with iridescent swirls of the liquid floating atop of the water.


The militants said they won't release the rest of the hostages until the Nigerian government meets their demands.

MEND is demanding that the government release Diepreye Alamieyeseigha, a former governor of Bayelsa state who was impeached and arrested on money-laundering charges, and Mujahid Dokubo Asari, a militia leader who is in jail on treason charges.

The militants also want Shell to pay $1.5 billion to the Ijaw people, the biggest ethnic group in the Niger delta, as compensation for alleged environmental damage.

``For now, their release is tied to the fulfillment of our stated conditions by the Nigerian government,'' Gbomo said in the e-mail. ``We know that won't happen so soon, so in other words we intend keeping these guys for a long, long time.''

Hawkins, who had been working in Nigeria for four months, said he bore no grudge against his kidnappers.

``I have seen them, they are dirt poor,'' he said. ``There's an old saying: as poor as field mice.''

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