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Niger Delta Militants Seize Oil Workers in Attack on Italian Vessel

Italian oil giant Eni has confirmed that six workers were taken in an attack on an offshore facility in Nigeria's Niger Delta on Friday morning. Some say a recent upsurge in attacks following a period of ceasefire could hamper efforts to create dialogue between the new government of President Umaru Yar'Adua and the militants. Kari Barber has more from our West Africa bureau in Dakar.

Eni has confirmed that unidentified gunmen in speedboats took the workers after boarding a company supply boat and then climbing aboard an offshore oil production facility. The company says those taken were Nigerian, Polish and Filipino citizens and one Nigerian worker was injured.

Nigerian security officials contacted for this report were not able to confirm the details of the attack.

The kidnapping follows a hostage taking Saturday in which seven Shell company workers were taken and held for two days. Militant group Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) claimed responsibility for Saturday's attack, but it is still unclear who was behind the attack Friday.

Militants claim they are fighting for more local control of the region's oil wealth. They have launched a campaign of kidnappings and attacks.

The recent attacks follow a five-month ceasefire after the inauguration of new President Umaru Yar'Adua. Mr. Yar'Adua promised in his inauguration speech to address grievances in the turbulent region.

Port Harcourt-based Non-violence in the Niger Delta organization head Kennedy West has been working to create dialogue between the militants and the government. He says the attacks make it difficult for those militants who want to negotiate.

"They have started kidnapping even Nigerians," said Mr. West. "They have started kidnapping kids. They have started kidnapping grandmothers and old women and fathers. They have started kidnapping even themselves. I wonder how the government will look at this."

In the past year kidnappings have begun to extend beyond oil workers to other foreigners and family members of politicians. Experts say the hostage taking has become a money-making affair.

West says he is optimistic about the new government, but worries they are still not listening to the militants demands.

"I believe that the government ought to make more of an effort," he added. "The government ought to talk to them face to face or allow them to appoint people who could represent them in dialogue.

Eni produces 50,000 barrels of oil per day. Nigeria is Africa's top oil producer, but militant attacks have cut production in recent months.