WARRI, Nigeria – Armed militants holding nine foreign oil workers hostage in Nigeria showed one of them to reporters for the first time Friday, a 68-year-old American who said he and his colleagues were being treated well.
Three Americans, two Egyptians, two Thais, one Briton and one Filipino have been missing since they were kidnapped Feb. 18 by militants who stormed a barge belonging to a U.S. oil company in the Niger Delta's Forcados estuary. The kidnappers are demanding that people in the country's south receive a greater share of their region's oil wealth.
"We're being treated quite well. Just let's hope it ends well," said the American, who identified himself as Macon Hawkins of Kosciusko, Texas.
Nine militants wearing black masks, military fatigues and carrying Kalashnikov assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenade launchers brought the hostage to a group of journalists by boat in the Niger Delta. The 15-minute meeting was held in mid-river — militants in one boat, journalists in two.
The militants reiterated demands for a third party to mediate an end to the crisis before returning the hostage to a boat, firing their weapons into the air and setting off into one of the delta's creeks.
Hawkins, who said he was from a small town in Texas, said he would turn 69 on March 1. Asked what he wanted for his birthday, he replied "freedom," and laughed heartily.
Hawkins, unshaven with gray hair, said his lunch Friday consisted of eggs, noodles and tea. He had a box of juice with him and a bottle of peanuts.
Thursday and Friday, militants issued photos of what they claimed were the nine kidnapped foreigners. In an e-mail, they also threatened more attacks on oil workers and the country's volatile oil industry.
The militants released a separate statement saying the photos, which appeared slightly out of focus, were "pictures of our hostages with a section of the unit that secured their capture."
"Oil industry workers should accept that we are going nowhere very soon and will show little mercy especially in facilities previously attacked," the militants said. "We are continuing with our attacks on oil facilities and oil workers in the next few days. We will act without further warning."
The barge the hostages were abducted from was owned by Houston-based oil services company Willbros Group Inc., which was laying pipeline for oil giant Royal Dutch Shell.
The militants denied reports that any negotiations were taking place to secure the hostages' release.
Hostage takings have been a common occurrence in the volatile delta for years. Most of those kidnapped are released unharmed.
Last month, militants held four foreigners for 19 days before releasing them unscathed.
The militants are demanding a greater share of oil wealth for their impoverished region, which has remained poor despite the large amounts of oil flowing from it.
A Nigerian court on Friday ordered Shell to pay southern communities $1.5 billion in compensation for environmental pollution and degradation in the Delta.
Justice Okechukwu Okeke of the federal high court in the oil industry center, Port Harcourt, ruled that Shell, in its capacity as the operator of a joint venture that includes the Nigerian government, France's Total and Italy's ENI, was obliged to pay the sum first ordered by the country's parliament in August 2004, a court registrar said.
Nigeria is Africa's top crude producer, exporting 2.5 million barrels a day.
In the latest unrest over the past week, militants have blown up pipelines and sabotaged a Shell oil loading platform, forcing the company to shut off the flow of several hundred thousand barrels of oil.
The militants say they also want to secure the release from jail of the delta's two most prominent leaders, Mujahid Dokubo-Asari and former Gov. Diepreye Alamieyeseigha.