Gunmen Seize 4 U.S. Workers in Nigeria

The Associated Press
Wednesday, May 9, 2007; 3:02 PM

LAGOS, Nigeria -- Gunmen seized four American workers in Nigeria's southern oil region, and an Italian oil company said Wednesday that daily crude production had been cut by nearly 100,000 barrels a day by the worst bombing to hit the petroleum industry in months.

Militants demanding greater control over oil in the region have stepped up attacks in recent weeks in Africa's biggest oil producer.

In the latest major incident, attackers carrying assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades stormed a boat just before midnight Tuesday and seized the four workers, two industry officials told The Associated Press, speaking on condition of anonymity due to company restrictions on dealing with the media.

Chevron Corp. spokesman Femi Odumabo said the four were subcontractors with U.S. citizenship.

Earlier Tuesday, militants staged coordinated attacks on three pipelines in the region, the most damaging assault on the country's vital oil infrastructure in more than a year.

Italian energy giant ENI SpA, whose Agip subsidiary helps operate the network of oil wells and pipelines crisscrossing the vast Niger Delta wetlands area, said output was cut by 98,000 barrels per day.

Nigeria is Africa's largest producer of crude, one of the top 10 exporters in the world and a leading supplier of oil to the United States.

The near-simultaneous blasts Tuesday follow the kidnappings of dozens of foreign oil workers last week, a sequence of events militants say is intended to shut down the industry.

Militants are pressuring the federal government to release two of their leaders from prison and give greater control over oil industry resources to their region, where most people are mired in deep poverty despite the area's natural bounty.

Analysts believe armed groups are flexing their muscles ahead of this month's handover of power to a newly elected government.

The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, the largest militant group in the area, claimed responsibility for the bombings and warned of more attacks ahead of the May 29 presidential inauguration, which will mark the country's first transfer of civilian power.

In an e-mail Wednesday, the group said it was not behind the kidnapping of the four Chevron workers, but it said it was encouraging attacks.

"We have asked all groups to attack all facilities and oil workers," it said.

Nigeria has a total production capacity of 3 million barrels per day, but protests and militant attacks had reduced oil production by around 680,000 barrels before Tuesday's bombings.

Nearly 100 foreign oil workers have been kidnapped in 2007. The kidnapping of the four Chevron workers brings the total number of foreigners kidnapped in the last 10 days to 32. Hostages are generally released unharmed after a ransom is paid.

On Tuesday, security forces ransacked the Port Harcourt offices of the Independent Monitor newspaper and detained an editorial assistant. Editor Nna Jack said by telephone from a safe house that the raid was connected to the newspaper's investigation into police involvement in the theft of crude oil.

© 2007 The Associated Press