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Nigeria Pursues 'Political Solution' to Hostage Crisis

Ethnic Ijaw leaders Saturday appealed to militants holding four foreign oil workers in Nigeria's delta region on Saturday to release them. Federal authorities appear to have ruled out the use of force to free the hostages.

Nigeria's information minister, Frank Nweke, says the government will pursue what he referred to as a "political solution" to the hostage crisis in the Niger Delta. He also rejected reports that one of the hostages, an American, is seriously ill.

"I want to state for the records and very clearly that the federal government of Nigeria is very much on top of the situation there," said Mr. Nweke. "I can confirm for example, that security authorities in Nigeria are in close contact with those that are being held and I can confirm that contrary to speculations regarding the ill-health of one of them, all the people are alive and well. A few days ago, Mr. President met with some governors from the Niger Delta and also some security chiefs to discuss what appears to be a rising violence in the area. And at the end of extensive deliberations, a small committee was set up under the chairmanship of the governor of Bayelsa state to procure a political solution to the situation there."

The militants had warned that one of their captives was ill.

American and British diplomats in Nigeria have cautioned local authorities against employing force to secure the release of the hostages. The Nigerian official acknowledged that the government has come under pressure to secure the quick release of the hostages through peaceful means.

"There is no responsible government that will not on its own, take the initiative to tackle the kind of situation we have there," he added. "So even without the pressures coming, the government of Nigeria desirous of ensuring that law and order and peace and security reign in every part of Nigeria. Of course in the Niger Delta is very strategic to Nigeria's economy. Government will do whatever is necessary to ensure that law and order is restored finally in that area and more importantly, that the people who operate in that area, the oil workers and all of that, are allowed to carry on their work in an atmosphere of peace and security and of course free of any molestation."

The Nigerian union representing senior oil workers (PENGASSAN) has threatened to withdraw its members from the Niger Delta unless the government resolves the hostage crisis and improves the security situation.

Oil production has suffered a 10 percent cut in the last 10 days since militants stormed oil facilities and seized four oil workers from the U.S., Britain, Honduras and Bulgaria.

Nigerian troops have been deployed in the area prompting fears that a military operation to free the hostages is being contemplated. Though a number of incidents involving hostage taking have been reported in the delta, they often ended without harm to the hostages.

The militant group is demanding the release of two Ijaw leaders, compensation for pollution and more local control over the delta's oil wealth.