LAGOS, Nigeria, Feb. 23 -- Gunmen opened fire Friday on a vehicle carrying foreign workers in Nigeria's unruly oil-producing south, killing a Lebanese man, while assailants on speedboats kidnapped two Italians in a separate incident.
Five gunmen shot at the car carrying two Lebanese and a Nigerian as it neared the airport in the main oil center of Port Harcourt. One of the Lebanese men died instantly, while the other and the Nigerian driver were wounded, Rivers State police spokeswoman Irejua Barasua said.
Crime, armed militancy and attacks on foreign workers are on the rise across the increasingly lawless Niger Delta region, where all Nigeria's crude oil is pumped.
Although the motives for Friday's attacks are not known, most foreigners targeted in the area are victims of robberies or kidnappings. The region of creeks and mangrove swamps remains deeply impoverished despite its natural resources.
Near Port Harcourt, a transit point for many expatriates helping maintain the maze of oil pumps and pipelines, gunmen exchanged fire with police escorting two Italian construction workers before seizing the pair, Barasua said.
The Italians were kidnapped when gunmen attacked their construction site, Italy's deputy foreign minister, Franco Danieli, told Sky TG24 News. "They arrived on board speedboats," he said. "It was a real military assault."
Danieli said there are 627 Italians in the area, working for 24 Italian companies, despite Foreign Ministry warnings to pull nonessential staff from the region.
Nigerian gunmen have frequently taken foreign workers hostage since launching a wave of attacks on the country's oil industry in early 2006 that have cut oil exports by 25 percent. Hostages are generally released unharmed after a ransom is paid.
In all, nine foreigners are being held by militant or criminal gangs in the Niger Delta. More than 50 foreigners have been seized since January.
The militants are demanding a greater share of oil revenue for the southern region. Despite the great riches stored under their lands, the region is among the poorest in Nigeria.