Kidnap gangs target 'white gold'
IN NIGERIA'S oil-rich south, foreign workers are known as "white gold" among the gangs who kidnap them for ransom.
"Ah, the whites are coming," chuckled one young gang member as a heavily-guarded oil company convoy sped throughPort Harcourt, sirens blaring. "It's like ice cream vans in your country."
Nigeria is Africa's largest producer of crude oil, or "black gold". But the country is in the grip of a kidnapping epidemic, with more than 150 foreigners seized so far this year, including many Britons and a woman and child - nearly double the total for all of last year.
The attacks have contributed to a drop in production of about 25 per cent, driving up oil prices worldwide with no end to the kidnappings in sight.
Ransoms are fuelling the surge, gang members and oil industry officials say. They also claim a cut goes to the government officials who shuttle between the gunmen in the swamps and professional negotiators flown in from Paris or London.
"Absolutely not true," Rivers state spokesman Emmanuel Okah said earlier this week.
But a militant from the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, a group behind a number of high-profile kidnappings said all sides pocket a portion of the ransom.
"Practically everyone involved in hostage negotiations has had his hands soiled," the militant said on condition of anonymity. "Officials merely up the demands of the abductors and keep the rest to themselves, most times unknown to the abductors."
One oil worker recounted how his captors and visiting officials argued over his ransom. The kidnappers insisted they had asked for more than twice the offered amount; officials said it had been stolen when they left the cash unattended. He said he remained in captivity while they were sent back for more.
In another case, Nigerian security forces threatened to kill a hostage if he revealed the discrepancy between what his company paid and what his kidnappers received, a security expert said.
"In many cases, the proportion of released funds that ends up in the hands of the kidnappers is unknown," another security professional said, speaking anonymously. "State or local government officials are keen to act as intermediaries."
It's a delicate subject. Company officials refuse to discuss ransoms for fear of alienating powerful local interests or becoming targets. Former hostages fear retribution from ex-captors or losing their job if they talk to the media. Even gang members fear speaking out.
Few companies have a direct line to the kidnappers. When four of oil company Agip's employees were kidnapped late last year, the militant group holding them said the company spent $1.5 million (738,000) trying to secure their release, a charge denied by Agip's parent company, Eni SpA.
"The company has never paid any ransom for the release of its employees kidnapped in Nigeria," a spokeswoman said from Rome.
No oil company has ever publicly admitted paying for hostages, but militants insist it happens.
"Agip has so far lost more than 200 million naira (738,000) to various con artists," the militant group said in an email before announcing that the ransom - allegedly unsolicited - had been "confiscated".
The militants, who claim to kidnap as part of a campaign for political concessions and a greater share of oil revenues for the poverty-stricken region, appeared to be trying to distinguish themselves from criminal gangs that kidnap for money.
Yet the militants, the criminals and the government are connected. One state official admitted that he took cash during the Agip kidnapping.
Mr Okah said no ransom was paid to secure the freedom on Sunday of British three-year-old Margaret Hill, the first foreign child snatched in the region. He said the state government no longer doles out cash from shadowy slush funds following a federal order last year prohibiting ransom payments.
In 2006, the Rivers state government allocated nearly 20 million as a "security vote," up from 13 million the year before.
"In the early stage, the state government facilitated releases," Okah acknowledged. "Now, it's individuals who pay ransoms."
And the kidnappings are escalating. Two foreigners were taken captive on Sunday and five seized last Wednesday were held for a week before being released, police said.
And expatriates aren't the only targets. Two senior Nigerian managers of Royal Dutch Shell were seized last Saturday before being released on Wednesday, according to colleagues, and two Nigerian toddlers have been taken captive in the past.
Nigeria is second only to Iraq as the country with the greatest risk of kidnap of foreign workers, kidnap and ransom experts ASI Global Response says.
REGION WITH A HISTORY OF GUNPOINT KIDNAPPINGS
ABOUT 200 adult expatriates have been kidnapped in the Niger Delta since the start of 2006 and 15 are still being held by various armed groups.
Major attacks and kidnappings this year involving the Nigerian oil industry have included:
• 1 May: The Movement for Emancipation of the Niger Delta seizes six expatriate workers from a Chevron offshore oil facility. The four Italians, an American and a Croat are freed on 3 June.
• 3 June: Gunmen kidnap six staff of United Company RUSAL, the Russian aluminium giant, in the south-east. The men were working at the Aluminium Smelter Company of Nigeria.
15 June: Gunmen kidnap two Lebanese men, working for Italian firm Stabilini, near Ogara in Delta state.
• 16 June: Militants free ten Indian hostages held since June 1, including at least three senior executives of Indonesian petrochemical firm Indorama.
23 June: Four hostages, from Britain, France, the Netherlands and Pakistan, employed by oil services giant Schlumberger, are released unharmed. The men were abducted on June 1 from Port Harcourt.
25 June: Two Indian construction workers, kidnapped in Delta state on June 15, are freed.
4 July: Armed men attack a Shell facility at Soku and abduct five expatriates, two from New Zealand, one Australian, one Venezuelan and one from Lebanon. They are freed on 11 July.
5 July: A three-year-old Briton, Margaret Hill, is abducted in Port Harcourt. She is released on 8 July.
• 7 July: Oil major Royal Dutch Shell said one of its teams was in Rivers state and two Nigerian workers taken hostage. The Nigerians are released on 11 July.
8 July: A Briton is among two foreign workers snatched from a production barge near Calabar in Cross River state.
12 July: A three-year-old son of a traditional ruler, named as Eze Francis Amadi, in the community of Iriebe, is kidnapped near Port Harcourt.
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