Four foreign oil workers kidnapped off Nigerian coast freed

AFP , Thursday 23 Aug 2012

Indonesian, Iranian, Malaysian and Thai oil workers kidnapped early August by suspected pirates off Nigeria's coast are released

Four foreign oil workers who were kidnapped when unknown gunmen attacked their vessel in the Gulf of Guinea off Nigeria on August 4 have been released, their employer Sea Trucks Group said Thursday.

"They were released last night," company spokeswoman Corrie van Kessel told AFP, regarding the Indonesian, Iranian, Malaysian and Thai nationals.

"They are OK. The families have been informed and we are very much relieved," she added, but declined to comment on the details of the release, including whether a ransom was paid.

Asked whether the prisoners sustained serious injuries or faced abuse while in captivity, van Kessel said, "No, not at all."

Nigeria's navy spokesman Kabir Aliyu told AFP he had heard that the four were free, but said he did not have details and it was not clear if Nigeria's marine forces played a role in any rescue operation.

Sea Trucks Group provides support services, including cargo vessels, to the oil majors operating off Nigeria.

In the early hours of August 4, suspected sea pirates stormed one of the company's barges and opened fire, killing two Nigerian sailors and injuring two others.

Aliyu previously said that the sailors had been stationed on the barge following a security request from the company.

The Gulf of Guinea has seen a sharp rise in the number of reported pirate attacks over the last six months, according to the International Maritime Bureau (IMB).

In a report released last month, IMB said there had been 32 piracy incidents recorded in the waters off Nigeria and Benin in the first half of 2012, up from 25 attacks in all of last year.

Many of the raids have involved "high levels of violence" or kidnappings, and were increasingly occurring further offshore, the report added.

In a number of cases, attacks have been aimed at stealing fuel being transported by tankers, which can then be sold on the region's lucrative black market.

Nigeria and neighbouring Benin launched joint patrols last year to address the problem.

On July 27, gunmen attacked a vessel transporting workers for Italian firm Agip in the Delta's Bayelsa state, leaving at least one person dead.

Cyrus Mody of IMB, who closely tracks the region, said pirate attacks in the gulf have long gone under-reported and the area had likely seen more violence than recent figures suggest.

As a result, some companies working in the region may not have been fully prepared for the risks involved.

A 2009 amnesty deal sharply reduced unrest in the oil-producing Niger Delta region, but the militants that operated there were notorious for kidnapping foreign oil workers.

Sporadic incidents continue to occur since the amnesty, including kidnappings for ransom.

Unrest in the Delta had curbed oil production in Nigeria, Africa's top oil producer and the world's eighth largest, but output has recovered since the amnesty.

Sea Trucks Group, which also operates in Australia and East Asia, was founded as a Nigerian firm in 1977 before expanding and currently has a corporate support office in the Netherlands, where van Kessel is based.

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