British Girl, 3, Kidnapped in Niger Delta

Gunmen smashed in the windows of a car carrying a British girl to school Thursday and kidnapped the three-year-old, marking the first seizure of a foreign child in Nigeria's increasingly lawless oil region.

In London, the British government called for the immediate release of Margaret Hill, whose father was said to work in the oil industry and who was taken from her car as it idled in Port Harcourt's heavy morning traffic. Nigerian community leaders were outraged.

"Taking an innocent child by force is a criminal act that should be roundly condemned by Nigerians," said Anabs Saraigbe, an influential chief of the ethnic Ijaw people who predominate in the region. "Such dastardly acts can't take us anywhere and must stop."

Over 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.

Kidnappers have focused mostly on foreign, male workers of international companies presumed to have the resources for ransom payments.

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.

Thursday's attack came during morning rush hour, as Margaret was being driven to school, said the British embassy in Nigeria.

A local radio station aired an interview with a woman identified as a witness, who said seven gunmen scared away onlookers by firing rifles in the air.

They then broke in the windows with their gunstocks, dragged out the child and bundled her away in a Peugeot, the woman told Rhythm FM.

In London, Britain's Foreign Office called for Margaret's "immediate safe release."

Nigerian security forces were investigating the case, said Rivers state police spokeswoman Irejua Barasua.

Acquaintances of Margaret's family said her father is a longtime resident of Nigeria who works for a firm performing contract work in Nigeria's oil industry, which is the continent's largest.

They also said he was the owner of a renowned Port Harcourt night spot popular with expatriate workers. The bar was shuttered Thursday and Margaret's family members couldn't be located by The Associated Press.

Criminal kidnappings have become common in the region, where the crude in Africa's biggest producer is pumped. More than a dozen foreigners are currently in captivity, including five seized Wednesday from a Royal Dutch Shell oil rig.

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.

The government of new President Umaru Yar'Adua is trying to calm the oil region, where security began worsening with the emergence of a new militant group in late 2005.

The militants, whose bombings and kidnappings have cut Nigeria's normal oil output by about one quarter, say they're 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.

While the militants pioneered the practice of kidnapping, saying it was a pressure tactic used for leverage with the government, most kidnappings now are purely criminal, without a political element.

Margaret's seizure appeared to set a new benchmark, however, with virtually no one in the country exempt from the rampaging violence. While the militants enjoy some measure of support for their political demands, Nigerians are generally dismayed by the hostage takings, which flourish partly in oil region because hostages can be hidden away from prying eyes in the vast maze of creeks and swamps.

"Kidnapping is a violation of the victim's fundamental human rights and can never be justified under any known law," said Onueze Okncha, former head of the Nigerian Bar Association. "It's going to cause problems for Nigeria people in ways we could never imagine."