Oil Contractors Kidnapped off Nigeria Coast Released

Two contract workers kidnapped from ships supplying Exxon Mobil Corp.'s offshore oil operations near Nigeria have been released, the company's local subsidiary said Thursday.

In a short statement, Exxon Mobil spokesman Nigel Cookey-Gam told The Associated Press the workers taken in attacks on Sept. 30 and Oct. 17 off the coast of Nigeria's oil-rich southern delta were released unharmed.

Cookey-Gam declined to offer further details, referring questions to the Nigerian government.

The two attacks occured near the coastline of Akwa Ibom state, where Exxon Mobil bases much of its operations in Nigeria. The company's oil tanks line the beach and its offshore oil rigs can be seen along the horizon, along with the burning flares from the excess gas released during pumping.

The two attacks mirrored each other, with gunmen attacking contractor ships carrying supplies as they were near Exxon Mobil oil rigs and platforms. In the Sept. 30 attack, however, one crew member was injured.

Foreign oil companies remain a lucrative target for militants and criminals in Nigeria's Niger Delta, a region of swamps and mangroves about the size of South Carolina. Foreign firms have pumped oil out of the delta for more than 50 years, with its easily refined crude one of the U.S.' top sources for gasoline.

Despite the billions flowing into Nigeria's government, many in the delta remain desperately poor, living in polluted waters without access to proper medical care, education or work.

Militants in the delta's winding creeks started a wave of attacks in 2006 targeting oil companies, including bombing their pipelines, kidnapping their workers and fighting with security forces. That violence waned in 2009 with a government-sponsored amnesty program promising ex-fighters monthly payments and job training. However, few in the delta have seen the promised benefits, stirring new discontent in a region awash in weaponry.

Exxon Mobil, based in Irving, Texas, runs the majority of its Niger Delta operations out of Akwa Ibom state. It pumped out more than 165 million barrels of oil in its partnership with the state-run Nigerian National Petroleum Corp. last year alone, according to government statistics.