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Nigerian Forces Free 19 Hostages Held by Militants

Nigerian troops freed 19 hostages held by militants in the oil-rich Niger River delta yesterday and handed them over to their employers at a military base in the port city of Port Harcourt, a military commander said.

“Military operations will continue” against militant groups, Major General Charles Omoregie, commander of the task force in charge of security in the region, told reporters today in Port Harcourt.

Those freed include two Americans, two Frenchmen, two Indonesians and a Canadian seized in an attack on Afren Plc’s Okoro oil field on Nov. 7, according to police spokesman Akin Fakorede. Among the others are eight Nigerian employees of Exxon Mobil Corp. abducted from the offshore Oso platform on Nov. 3 and four workers for Royal Dutch Shell Plc’s local unit.

“It was shocking and devastating,” Robert Croke, the Canadian seized in the attack on Afren, said at the handover ceremony in Port Harcourt. “I don’t want anybody to have the same experience.”

The southern Niger delta, which is home to Nigeria’s oil and gas industry, has been hit by a surge of violence in recent months after a period of relative calm that followed a government amnesty in 2009 and the disarming of thousands of militant fighters. In response, the Nigerian military ordered an offensive against rebels last week.

Oil Producer

Nigeria is Africa’s biggest oil producer and the fifth-largest source of U.S. oil imports. Shell, Exxon Mobil, Chevron Corp., Total SA and Eni SpA run joint ventures with the state-owned Nigerian National Petroleum Corp. that pump most of the West African nation’s oil.

Attacks by armed groups in the delta cut Nigeria’s oil production by more than 28 percent from 2006 to 2009, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

Following last year’s amnesty, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, the main militant group in the region, refused to disarm, saying its demands for local control of oil revenue weren’t met. MEND claimed responsibility for the attack on Afren and Exxon Mobil.

Another armed group, which identified itself as the Niger Delta Liberation Force under the leadership of General John Togo, also denounced the amnesty, saying on Nov. 14 that it will target oil installations in fresh attacks.

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