Mend prepares to hand over hostages

2010-11-18 13:41

Port Harcourt - Officials from foreign and local oil and construction firms gathered at an air force base in the Nigerian oil hub Port Harcourt on Thursday for the handover of 19 hostages freed by the security forces.

Nigeria's military rescued the hostages, including seven foreigners, from militant camps in the creeks of the Niger Delta in a land, air and sea operation on Wednesday, security sources said.

Those freed included two Americans, two Frenchmen, two Indonesians and a Canadian taken from an Afren oil rig, eight Nigerians abducted from an Exxon Mobil platform and four Nigerian employees of local construction firm Julius Berger.

Several of the hostages, who appeared to be in good health and were dressed in T-shirts and trousers, were eating breakfast in a canteen at the air force base as officials from their companies arrived, a Reuters witness said.

"The operation lasted until about 03:00 (02:00 GMT) this morning. It was a joint effort involving the air force, army, navy, police and state security service," said a military officer involved in the operation who declined to be named.

The release of the hostages is a boost for President Goodluck Jonathan ahead of elections next April.

As the first Nigerian head of state from the Niger Delta and the man who brokered an amnesty with militants in the region last year, resurgent unrest risked undermining his credibility.

The military taskforce responsible for security in the vast wetlands region, the heartland of Africa's biggest oil and gas industry, said it carried out several operations simultaneously across the Niger Delta on Wednesday but has given no details.

It is expected to hold a briefing later.

Afren confirmed on Thursday that the seven contractors taken from its rig had been released unharmed. France's Foreign Minister Michele Alliot-Marie has also confirmed that two of its nationals had been released.