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Niger Delta Groups Seek Release of British Hostages

Some of the most influential groups in Nigeria's Niger Delta are seeking the release of two British oil workers a day after militants' holding them said one of them was ill.

The militant group, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, MEND, said in an e-mailed statement that one of the British hostages in its custody has contracted what it called a strange disease and was very ill. It said a local doctor had been called in to treat him but dismissed the possibility of freeing the sick hostage.

The Niger Delta Energy Development and Security Strategy, one of the region's most influential pressure groups, says it is in talks with the rebel group to release the British hostages. Spokesman for the group, Tony Uranta, told VOA it is time to bring the four-month long hostage saga to closure.

"Either way, whether because of government's negligence or reluctance or lack of speed to act, or MEND non-compliance with certain rules of engagement, we do not think it is in anybody's interest to hold the hostages for as long as they are holding them. And we are very actively engaged, even now, in speaking to members of the group to see how soon and how they are going to affect the release of these poor men so that families can begin to heave a sigh of relief," he said.

The two Britons were first kidnapped in September with two South Africans, an Ukrainian and more than 20 Nigerians when their supply vessel was hijacked off the coast of the Niger Delta.

MEND then seized the men from their original captors and released all of them except the Britons. The group says it would hold the men until Henry Okah, the leader of MEND who is facing gun-running and treason charges, was released.

The Niger Delta previously produced 2.5 million barrels of oil per day, but output has declined to less than two million barrels.

Since January 2006, 44 Britons and more than 200 foreigners have been kidnapped in Nigeria. One Briton was killed.

Analysts say the slump in oil prices is making the Niger Delta even more dangerous as the money to tackle militancy dries up.