Nigeria Militants Threaten to Kill Eni Oil Workers

LONDON, Dec 20, 2006 (Dow Jones Newswires)

Nigerian militants said Wednesday they plan to kill four oil workers of Italian oil giant Eni SpA (E) abducted several days ago unless the Nigerian government releases four Nigerians currently in jail.

It's the first time the militant group, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, has threatened to execute hostages as part of its strategy to gain control of oil resources in Nigeria's volatile and oil-rich Niger Delta and win the release of some of its political leaders. MEND, which has helped make oil worker abductions a lucrative criminal enterprise in Nigeria in the past year, sought to embarrass Eni's subsidiary Agip by accusing it of seeking to pay ransoms to "several criminals" in the delta and to MEND for the release of the oil workers, three Italians and one Lebanese.

In an e-mail statement sent to the media, MEND also accused Agip of portraying the group as "criminals" in the Italian media. Eni wasn't available to comment.

The Nigerian government has recently sought to dissuade companies from paying ransoms, fearing they encourage abductions, but security analysts say the government, oil companies or a combination of both pay ransom payments that usually total well over $100,000 to free abducted workers.

"Agip is advised to disregard all who claim to be able to facilitate the release of these hostages. It will not happen. Rather than release them, the hostages will all be shot. This is a promise!," MEND said.

"As earlier stated, the release of these four individuals is tied to the release of four hostages of Niger Delta origin in Nigerian government hands."

MEND's self-described public representative known as Jomo Gbomo, in an e-mail response to Dow Jones Newswires, said the group could hold the workers for up to a year.

"We are prepared to hold (the hostages) for as long as one year. We will only dispose of them if we get bored with their company," said Gbomo, whose real identity isn't known.

The workers were abducted nearly two weeks ago in an assault on Agip's Brass oil export terminal in Bayelsa state.

The threat Wednesday comes two days after MEND detonated two car bombs at compounds of Agip and Royal Dutch Shell PLC (RDSB.LN) in Nigeria's oil capital Port Harcourt.

The coordinated blasts damaged cars but didn't cause injuries. The group said it wouldn't provide warnings in the future about bomb attacks and pledged to kidnap more oil workers.

Gbomo's claims to be part of MEND's leadership structure have been supported by threats of future attacks that later occurred and Gbomo's knowledge of the movement of abducted oil workers.

Little is known about the size of MEND although Nigerian analysts say it is comprised of various factions within the dominant Ijaw group, the biggest ethnic group in the Niger Delta where most of the country's oil is produced.

The group has demanded for over a year the release of two of its leaders, Mujahid Dokubo-Asari and former Gov. Diepreye Alamieyeseigha.

Dokubo-Asari, who waged a struggle for autonomy for the Ijaws estimated 8 million people, was jailed on treason charges in September 2005. Alamieyeseigha was arrested shortly afterwards in Nigeria after fleeing the U.K. on money laundering charges.

The group has also demanded $1.5 billion in compensation from Shell for environmental pollution. Shell has rejected the allegations.

Nearly 120 mostly foreign oil workers have been abducted since January, according to the U.K. Foreign Office, and nearly all of them have been later released after a ransom was paid.

An abducted British national and a Nigerian were killed in the past two months after being caught in an exchange of gunfire during attempts by the Nigerian military to rescue them.

Attacks by MEND, other splinter groups and local thugs on oil pipelines and oil gathering points, or flow stations, have shut-in between 600,000 barrels a day to 700,000 barrels a day for most of this year. The amount is roughly a quarter of Nigeria's typical daily oil production.

Copyright (c) 2006 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.