PORT HARCOURT, Nigeria – The kidnappers of a British girl in Nigeria are threatening to kill the three-year-old and then come after the parents if their demands aren't met, the girl's sobbing mother told the Associated Press Friday.
The British government said it was working to effect the release of Margaret Hill, while police ruled out using force. Margaret's father, Briton Mike Hill, has lived in the country for a decade, and runs a bar popular with expatriates in Port Harcourt, the country's main oil center.
In a brief interview through the gates of the family compound, Oluchi Hill told The Associated Press that the gunmen who have been holding her daughter, Margaret, for more than 24 hours were giving the girl bread and water. Oluchi Hill would not say what the kidnappers were demanding.
Earlier, the mother told the British Broadcasting Corp. that the kidnappers told her to meet them in a town in Bayelsa State in the Niger Delta region, but that neither she nor the police had been able to locate it.
"They say I can bring my husband to swap with the baby," she told the BBC. "He wanted to go down for his baby but the police commander told him not to."
The BBC reported that Mike Hill was ill and had been due to fly to Britain for unspecified treatment.
An official at the British High Commission in Nigeria said British authorities were in contact with local officials and the Hill family.
"We're hopefully working towards a release," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with British Foreign Ministry policy.
Rivers state Police Commissioner Felix Ogbaudu said security forces wouldn't mount an operation to free the girl. The two hostages that died during 18 months of Niger Delta violence perished from wounds suffered in gunfights between police and hostage takers. All other hostages were liberated unharmed.
"The situation we have found ourselves in is delicate. But we will do our best to get the girl freed unharmed," he told reporters.
The region's main militant group, Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, said its fighters would help in the search for the missing child, and echoed the revulsion of many Nigerians at kidnapping children.
"We will join in the hunt for the monsters who carried out this abduction and mete out adequate punishment for this crime," the group's spokesman said in an e-mail message to the AP. "We abhor all forms of violence against women and children."
Militants have carried out kidnappings to press their demands for a greater political voice and that the region that produces oil see more of the wealth it generates. But increasingly many of the kidnappings are merely criminal, aimed at extracting ransom.
Gunmen smashed in the windows of a car carrying Margaret to school Thursday and kidnapped her, marking the first abduction of a foreign child in Nigeria's increasingly lawless oil region.
Britain's Foreign Office called for Margaret's "immediate safe release."
Kidnappings in the region, where the crude in Africa's biggest producer is pumped have focused mostly on foreign, male workers of international companies presumed to have the resources for ransom payments.
More than a dozen foreigners are currently in captivity, including five seized Wednesday from a Royal Dutch Shell oil rig.
More than 200 foreigners have been kidnapped since militants stepped up their activities against the oil industry in late 2005 and more than 100 expatriates have been seized this year alone as criminal gangs took up the practice.
While two children of wealthy Nigerians have been seized in the restive Niger Delta in recent weeks, Margaret's seizure was the first of a foreign child -- indicating yet one more barrier toppled in an increasingly restive region where hospitality is normally venerated. Both Nigerian children were released within days, without injury.
Hostages are generally released unharmed after a ransom is paid -- often by state governments that control huge, unregulated security slush funds, with officials taking a cut, according to industry officials. At least two hostages have been killed in the crossfire when security forces crossed the kidnappers.
Hostage takers routinely issue threats over the welfare of their captives, but no hostage has ever been seriously injured by kidnappers while in captivity.
The government of new President Umaru Yar'Adua is trying to calm the oil region, where security began worsening with the emergence of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta in late 2005.
The militants, whose bombings and kidnappings have cut Nigeria's normal oil output by about one quarter, say they are fighting to force the federal government to give the Niger Delta region a greater share of state oil money.
Despite four decades of oil production, the region remains among the poorest anywhere in Africa, a situation residents blame on official corruption and mismanagement of government money.