, LAGOS, May 14 – Nigerian militants took 15 foreigners hostage in the oil-rich Niger Delta as the country’s main armed group Thursday reiterated a warning to oil companies to evacuate staff or face "a hurricane" of attacks.
Gunmen were holding the 15 after hijacking their ship in the Delta on Wednesday, the country’s main militant group, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) said in a statement.
"An affiliate group hijacked the MV Spirit yesterday in Delta state and has taken fifteen foreign crew members hostage," it said.
Army spokesman Colonel Rabe Abubakar confirmed several foreigners had been abducted from one of two ships attacked on Wednesday but gave no indication of their number or nationality.
"The seizure is connected with the on-going fracas," said MEND, which also said it raided two military bases overnight in the Delta, a claim denied by the army.
"There was no attack on our bases. There was no encounter at 2:00 am as claimed, no disruption of our gunboats as claimed. It didn’t take place," Abubakar told AFP.
News of the kidnapping emerged as MEND extended a Wednesday ultimatum for staff to leave within 24 hours, to Saturday.
"Oil workers are advised to don the cloak of common sense and evacuate all oil facilities in the Niger Delta before the arrival of an imminent hurricane," it warned in the statement.
"Effective 0000 Hrs on Saturday, May 16, 2009, the entire Niger Delta region will be declared a no-fly zone to helicopters and float planes operating on behalf of oil companies.
"All freedom fighters in the Niger Delta have been placed on alert to defend their positions and unleash a horrible toll on the oil industry and the Nigerian economy."
Major oil companies declined to comment on the threats Thursday.
Shell spokesman Precious Okolobo said it was not company policy to comment on security measures in place, nor to confirm reports of fighting.
An ExxonMobil official who asked not to be named said the company is always very vigilant on security but declined to say whether it planned to tighten security still further.
MEND said the raids on army bases followed military attacks on two of its own camps in Delta State on Wednesday morning.
It claimed to have sunk two army gunboats "with several casualties on the side of the army" in the ensuing gunbattle.
A spokesman for the special military body in the region, the Joint Task Force, confirmed Wednesday’s clash but denied the army lost any men.
"They ambushed our people. We had to defend ourselves. Only two of our soldiers were wounded in the attack. We did not record any casualty at all. It is sheer propaganda on their part," Abubakar told AFP.
MEND, which has been blamed for scores of attacks on oil installations and kidnappings of foreign oil workers, claims to be fighting for a fair distribution of oil wealth to local communities in the Delta region.
Militant activities there have forced Nigeria, until recently Africa’s leading exporter of crude, to cut output by about a quarter since 2006.
A member of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), Nigeria relies on oil for about 99 percent of its export earnings and about 85 percent of government revenues, according to the World Bank.