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In Nigeria, gangs who once kidnapped wealthy foreigners now target middle-class countrymen

PORT HARCOURT, Nigeria (AP) — Masked armed men guard Nigeria's elite in this volatile oil-rich region, but the country's middle class can only lock their doors and pray each time their children leave home.

Kidnappers who once targeted foreign oil workers are now abducting children — including one as young as 8 months old — for whatever ransom they can get.

The abduction crisis has forced the price of German shepherds to skyrocket, as only the wealthiest can afford private security in a country where most people earn less than a $1 a day.

President Goodluck Jonathan, himself from the Niger Delta, has decried the explosion of kidnappings and pledged to use the military to "crush" those behind it.

"We can no longer continue to live in a society where even if your wife is going to church, you have to look for an (armored personnel carrier) to follow her," Jonathan told a crowd of ruling party supporters last month.

"If the children are going to school, you have to look for machine-gun-carrying security people to follow them. How many people can afford that?" he asked.

Kidnappers once targeted only foreign oil workers and contractors for six-figure ransoms. Now, with oil firms keeping their workers hidden behind razor wire and under paramilitary protection, gangs have increasingly turned to middle-class Nigerian families.

In recent months, kidnap victims have been as young as an 8-month-old baby seized in Port Harcourt in February. The elementary school-age son of a village chief was seized while still in his school uniform; the boy was eventually released, presumably after the kidnappers' demands were met. Often-targeted doctors have gone on strike to protest the ransom market.

Nigeria's perpetually underpaid federal police force, whose officers routinely extort motorists at checkpoints, keep no official records on the number of kidnappings sweeping the delta. However, newspapers carry near-daily reports of kidnappings and ransom demands, and even the state-run television broadcaster has had to acknowledge the epidemic.

Those who can afford it hire police officers from units like the Mobile Police, or "kill-and-go" as Nigerians refer to them. A report by the Soros Foundation's Open Society Justice Initiative suggested about a fourth of the nation's officers also work as private security guards.

They are a routine sight in Port Harcourt and elsewhere in the Niger Delta — paramilitary police units outfitted to battle militants pulling guard duty for the country's elite.

Pickup trucks filled with masked men armed with Kalashnikovs speed through the streets, sirens wailing, followed by black sport utility vehicles with tinted windows carrying VIP clients.

It didn't use to be this way. Foreign oil companies have worked for 50 years in the Niger Delta, a region of swamps, mangrove fields and palm-tree-lined creeks almost the size of South Carolina.

At first, many foreign oil workers moved freely in a caterwauling nightlife of prostitutes and cheap drinks as revolving military dictatorships kept strict and violent control over the region.

That began to change in the 1990s as local communities began to run off oil companies. By 2006, it turned into a full-fledged insurrection, as militants, upset about the delta's unceasing poverty, blew up pipelines, kidnapped oil company workers and fought government troops.

Today, oil companies like Royal Dutch Shell PLC keep workers ensconced in massive double-fenced compounds or transport their offshore rig workers directly to the sea from regional airports.

Much of the militant activity dropped off in recent months after many gang leaders accepted an amnesty deal offered by late President Umaru Yar'Adua. However, small arms and machine guns remain all too prevalent in the region, analysts say.

"It's the foot soldiers that are kind of left by the wayside. ... They've just got to kidnap what they can," said Mark Schroeder, the director of sub-Saharan Africa analysis for the U.S. security think tank STRATFOR. "The individual in the Nigerian middle class just doesn't have the security safeguards that the oil workers have."

As a result, middle-class children, as well as priests, politicians and doctors have been targeted by criminal gangs. Typically, most are released in a week or two after their families pay whatever ransom they can scrape together.

Oil workers went for sums upward of $165,000 (25 million naira). However, middle-class Nigerian families can pay much less, so gangs resort to kidnapping more of them to make the same profits, Schroeder said.

Many victims' families leave the police out of it, for fear officers in one of the world's most corrupt nations will demand their own cut. As a result, figures on kidnappings remain hard to gauge.

The overwhelming poverty and allure of fast money drives criminality, says local human rights activist Anyakwee Nsirimovu. In a nation of 150 million where corruption is rife, some see it as the only way to get ahead.

"They've created an environment where the only way you can get what you want is by engaging in criminal activity, Nsirimovu said.