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Efforts Continue to Obtain Release of Hostages in Nigeria


In Italy, efforts are being stepped up to obtain the release of four foreign oil workers held hostage by militants in Nigeria. Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo has assured that no force will be used to free the men. Sabina Castelfranco reports from Rome

The four kidnapped oil workers are all employed with ENI, Italy's biggest oil and gas company. The three Italians and one Lebanese were abducted December 7 from the Brass oil export terminal operated by Agip and part of the ENI group.

There has been little contact between the captives and their families since their abduction by the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND). But the Italian Foreign Ministry said the men spoke to their relatives on Monday and told them they were in good health

The chief executive of ENI, Paolo Scaroni, met with the Nigerian president in Lagos, Wednesday, to discuss efforts to secure the release of the workers. Scaroni was reassured that the Nigerian government would continue to negotiate with the group holding the men captive.

Scaroni says, after what the president told him, he feels more confident than before. He says Mr. Obasanjo told him the Nigerian government would not use force to free the hostages. He added that this reassured him because using force in these cases can be very dangerous.

Concern for the four men had mounted before Christmas, when MEND said it would rather kill them than accept a ransom for their release.

The militants are demanding that Nigerian authorities free the former Bayelsa State governor - jailed on corruption charges - a separatist leader and other detainees from the Niger Delta.

They are also demanding a larger share of oil revenues for southern Nigerians. Oil money accounts for almost all the country's foreign exchange income and compensation for communities affected by oil pollution.

The presence of foreign oil companies has fuelled resentment among many residents in the impoverished region, who say the profits have enriched industry players and the government but failed to benefit them.

This year, alone, some 70 oil industry workers have been taken hostage. They are usually released, unharmed, after a ransom is paid.