Nigerian militants free 6 oil tanker hostages

NigeriaNigerian militants have freed six crew members abducted earlier this month from an oil tanker, a Norwegian oil services company said.

The Sichem Peace crew was freed Tuesday evening after spending 18 days in captivity in the Niger Delta, EMS Ship Management, which manages the Singapore-flagged oil and chemical tanker, said in a statement.

The sailors were heading to Lagos for medical checkups before flying back to their home countries.

The Sichem Peace was attacked by an armed gang July 4 some 18 miles (29 kilometers) off Escravos, Nigeria.

The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta said the six were released as part of the 60-day cease-fire it announced last week. The hostages included three Russians, two Filipinos and one sailor from India.

More than 200 foreign workers have been taken captive in the restive Niger Delta since violence increased in 2006, with most released unharmed after a ransom is paid.

The militants halted attacks last week after the government released an ailing rebel leader. Both sides have welcomed the prospect of negotiations to end years of violence that have trimmed Nigeria’s daily oil output by 25 percent to about 1.7 million barrels.

But militant spokesman Jomo Gbomo warned that the group would end its cease-fire if oil pipelines and facilities it has destroyed are repaired.

“This is a dividend of the current cease-fire,” Gbomo said in a statement. “We hope that the federal government will begin to reciprocate our gesture.”

The militants want the government to withdraw troops from the Niger Delta and help people return to homes they either fled amid the violence or were forced to leave. They also say their impoverished southern region has not benefited from decades of oil production, and are agitating for more federal oil funds to be sent there.

The government has acknowledged the grievances of many in the Niger Delta, but denounces the militants as criminals who steal crude oil from Nigeria’s wells and pipelines and profit by selling it overseas.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.