Nigerian militants holding three Italian hostages in the volatile Niger Delta region late last night released one of them. The Italian oil workers, along with a Lebanese national, were taken hostage last month. In an e-mail message, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), the group holding the stages, said the release was in response to negotiations it is having with Dr. Godknows Boladei Igali, secretary to the Bayelsa State governor.
Ekiyor Welson is spokesman for the Bayelsa State governor. Earlier, he confirmed to that the release of the hostages was imminent.
“That is a possibility. In fact, we are even expecting that they will be released today (Wednesday). But up till now we’ve not seen them. But we are very, very optimistic. I want to state that on behalf of the state government, we want to assure our country Nigeria and the international community that going by our efforts, we want to believe that in the next 24 hours, by God’s grace all things being equal, the hostages will be released. So let’s look at before the end of Thursday evening we should be able to have some good news,” he said.
A number of other hostages are being held in the Niger Delta region by unknown groups, including five Chinese. But Welson said the focus now is on the release of the Italian hostages.
The rebels and militants in the region have been demanding a share of the country’s oil wealth. But Welson said the Bayelsa State government did not make a deal for the release of the Italian hostages.
“We understand that the underlining factor in all of these is the development of the Niger Delta, and right now both the state government and the federal government are working very hard to see how they can improve the life in the Niger Delta,” he said.
Welson also said the hostage takers sometimes make demands that were beyond the powers of the Bayelsa State government.
“Like when the group demands for the release of the former governor (Diepreye Alamieyeseigha) and also the release of somebody like Alhaji Asari Dokubo, you know clearly that these are matters that go beyond the state government. And so we try as much as possible to draw a line between taking hostages and demanding for the release of these people, because these people are actually in court, and the process of adjudication cannot be stopped abruptly,” he said.
For more than a year now, stepped-up violence in the Niger Delta region has cut nearly one fourth of Nigeria's usual 2.5 million-barrel crude production and helping to send global oil prices soaring.
Welson said the federal government and the Bayelsa State government have a long-term plan to change the situation.
“Basically what we are planning is we want to change the orientation of our youths, because most of these things are done by our youths in collaboration with some many other people. So the basic thing is how to empower them. You see, there is so much unemployment; there is so much poverty and deprivation in the Niger Delta. So it’s a long-term thing – education, empowerment, employment, and general reorientation. And we are praying that by God’s grace the oil companies should also be involved so that collectively we can change fortunes in the Niger Delta, and all this criminality will stop,” Welson said.