A military raid freed 19 hostages held in Nigeria's oil-rich southern delta Wednesday night, a negotiator said, striking a stunning blow to a resurgent militancy in a region vital to U.S. oil supplies.

The negotiator, who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity, said the operation freed seven expatriate workers kidnapped Nov. 8 from an oil rig working an offshore field for London-based Afren PLC. Another seven Nigerians hostages came from an attack carried out Sunday on an Exxon Mobil Corp. rig operating nearby. The origin of the remaining hostages remained unclear Wednesday night.

Others kidnapped included workers for construction company Julius Berger Nigeria PLC.

Those kidnapped from the Afren rig include two U.S. workers, one Canadian, two French and two Indonesians. Among those hostages are James Robertson of Silver Creek, Mississippi, and Canadian Bob Croke of Newfoundland.

The negotiator spoke on condition of anonymity as the operation to free the hostages was still ongoing. An Afren spokesman declined to immediately comment Wednesday night, and officials with Exxon Mobil did not immediately return a call for comment.

The French Foreign Ministry issued a statement Wednesday night saying it welcomed the release of the two French hostages, calling the moment "a happy ending."

New Foreign Minister Michele Alliot-Marie "would like to warmly thank all those who contributed to this release, in particular the Nigerian authorities," the statement said

A contingent of militants who claimed they belonged to the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, also known by the acronym MEND, said they kidnapped the foreign workers. Militants began a campaign of pipeline bombings and high-profile kidnappings in the region in 2006.

Militants in the delta, a region of winding creeks and mangroves about the size of Portugal, want more oil money to come to an area still gripped by abject poverty and pollution after more than 50 years of oil production. However, nebulous ties exist between militants, criminal gangs operating in the area and wealthy politicians who benefit from oil revenue in the region.

Lt. Col. Timothy Antigha, a military spokesman, said Wednesday night an operation to attack militant camps was ongoing in the region, but declined to comment further.


Associated Press writer Angela Charlton in Paris contributed to this report.



Afren PLC: http://www.afren.com

Exxon Mobil Corp.: http://www.exxonmobil.com