Nigeria's president says escalating violence in the restive Niger Delta has taken on a criminal dimension. For VOA, Gilbert da Costa reports that militants are continuing assaults on foreigners in the region.
Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo says spiraling crime in the oil-rich delta is driving the current unrest. Participating in a radio phone-in program on Saturday, President Obasanjo announced that his administration has adopted what he called, a carrot and stick strategy, to deal with the growing crisis.
"The problem in the Niger Delta is not a political problem. It is a criminality problem. What we are doing is essentially using the carrot, the carrot to say, 'yes, people need a job. What can we to do to give them a job?' Some of them haven't got the type of education, or any skills that will give them a job. So, we will go for massive skill acquisition training. Then, after we have been able to do what we believe we should do to provide jobs, to train, to educate, then anybody who still persists in the act of criminality will have himself to blame because the stick will come into play," he said.
Gunmen on Friday shot dead a Lebanese technician and kidnapped two Italian construction workers in separate incidents in Nigeria's main oil city of Port Harcourt.
Kidnappings and attacks on oil facilities and personnel by local gangs are now frequent in the impoverished region, where some groups say they are fighting for more equitable distribution of oil wealth.
President Obasanjo says the payment of ransom has become a huge catalyst for the unending spate of kidnappings. "They go and take hostages, so that they can get ransom and the ransom they take, when they finish it, they take other hostages. We have told people, 'don't pay ransom.' But when they (kidnappers) have held their people for some time, they [employers/friends/family of those kidnapped] say, 'well, we [would] rather pay ransom,' [to] get their people secured. But, when you pay ransom this time, they [ the kidnappers] will take more next time, when they finish spending what you have paid them. So, it is a vicious cycle," he said.
Nearly 60 foreigners have been kidnapped in the Niger Delta since the start of this year, almost the same number of seizures in the whole of 2006.
The targeting of foreigners in the world's sixth largest oil exporter has forced thousands of oil workers to quit the region, resulting in a cut in oil production of about 20 percent.
Some analysts say political tension ahead of April's election is also contributing to the spiraling violence.