6 Russians, 1 Estonian kidnapped off Nigeria freed

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LAGOS (AFP) – Seven crew members of an anchor handling ship kidnapped last month by attackers who stormed their vessel off Nigeria have been released, French company Bourbon said on Thursday.

Nigeria’s military said it played a role in the release of the six Russian and one Estonian sailors although a statement from the Marseilles-based firm gave no details of the circumstances including whether or not a ransom had been paid.

“Despite difficult conditions while in captivity, they all appear to be in good health,” Bourbon said, adding that “no information will be given about the demands (or) the context” of the release.

Scores of kidnappings for ransom have occurred in the Niger Delta. A 2009 amnesty deal greatly reduced unrest there, but incidents still occur regularly.

Borboun said that branches of the country’s security service, including a Joint Military Task Force (JTF) “worked towards this liberation,” but did not elaborate.

Colonel Onyema Nwachukwu, a JTF spokesman, said troops from the unit were involved in securing the release.

“Of course JTF operatives were involved by combing the nooks and crannies of the Niger delta to ensure that the hostages were released unhurt. But we will not comment on ransom or any operational details,” he said.

The crew, kidnapped on October 15, were undergoing medical checks in Nigeria and would return to their home countries within the next few days, Bourbon said.

The targeted ship, the Bourbon Liberty 249, was an anchor handling vessel, the kind used to tow anchors for oil rigs or mobile drilling rigs.

In a report earlier this year, the International Maritime Bureau said the Gulf of Guinea was emerging as a new piracy hub, with heavily armed gangs carrying out increasingly violent attacks, where crude theft was often the goal.

In August, four foreign oil workers — Indonesian, Iranian, Malaysian and Thai nationals — were kidnapped when unknown gunmen attacked their vessel in the Gulf of Guinea.

In the early hours of August 4, suspected sea pirates stormed a barge and opened fire, killing two Nigerian sailors and injuring two others.

Years of unrest in the Delta had curbed crude production in the nation, Africa’s top oil producer, but output has recovered since the 2009 amnesty and has been at more than two million barrels per day.

The unrest prior to the amnesty saw criminal gangs and militants claiming to be fighting for a greater share of oil revenue carry out attacks on oil facilities, including blowing up pipelines.

While the unrest has been reduced, criminality remains widespread and oil theft in the region continues to be a major problem.

Shell, the biggest producer in the country, has said there have been estimates that 150,000 barrels of oil are stolen in the country each day.

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