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Nigeria Rules Out Military Option for Hostages Release

Oil company officials in Nigeria Thursday confirmed that armed attackers have retreated from two oil facilities in the Niger Delta. But, as Gilbert da Costa in Abuja reports, the negotiations leading to the release of four foreign workers seized three weeks ago are proving a lot more difficult.

The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, also known as MEND, which is holding the four hostages, has ruled out any compromise on its demands.

The federal authorities are equally inflexible, making a possible breakthrough at this stage more difficult.

Joshua Benamaisia, who leads a group of Nigerian negotiators, says that while the process appears stalled, he remains optimistic.

He said, "Between now and weekend, we are hopeful something positive will come out. We are just trying to see what we can do to ensure that the hostages are released. It has not been easy."

The four foreigners, three Italians and a Lebanese, spent Christmas in captivity despite pleas for their release.

Italian oil company, Agip, which employed the men, has reportedly had its offer of a ransom rejected by the militant group.

The Nigerian Red Cross says it has requested access to the hostages in the wake of reports suggesting that at least one of them may be seriously ill.

Abiodun Orebiyi, the secretary general of the Nigeria Red Cross, said, "We are making efforts in that direction and if we are able to get any breakthrough you will hear from us."

Senior officials of Eni, the parent company of Agip, met Wednesday with President Olusegun Obasanjo, and extracted a commitment from the Nigerian leader that military force will not be used to free the hostages.

MEND has put forward the release of two jailed leaders from the delta, compensation to villagers for oil pollution, transfer of control of oil revenues from government to local communities and reparations, as conditions for the release of the hostages.