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Nigerian Hostages Freed - 2003-05-03

In Nigeria, workers who were held captive for two weeks on oil rigs by about 100 workers on strike are being freed. Nigeria now faces more violence in southern oil-producing regions, as local elections take place Saturday.

Nearly 100 foreigners were among the several hundred oil workers who were held captive since mid-April on four oil rigs off the Gulf of Guinea.

An agreement to end the siege was reached Friday in Abuja, after meetings between representatives for the striking workers and executives from the U.S. company, Transocean, which operates the rigs.

More negotiations are expected to take place in a few days, once the evacuation of the rigs is complete.

Jake Molloy, a trade union leader representing several of the foreigners held captive, said that, during the two weeks, they were given freedom of movement on the rigs, but not off them. "They didn't physically restrain anyone; there was no physical restraint," he said. "There was no locking in or anything like that. The guys were free to move around the accommodation. They had access to the outside world round the walkways of their accommodations, and on to the helideck. "

The protest action began after five union members were fired over alleged theft and corruption. The Nigerian hostage-takers also said they wanted better working conditions, including transportation to the rigs by helicopter, rather than by boats.

On Friday, helicopters started flying the hostages and their captors back to land in Port Harcourt, in southern Nigeria.

At about the same time, violence involving armed ethnic Ijaw militants broke out in the nearby city of Warri, in the Niger Delta oil producing region.

The militants had vowed to disrupt state assembly and local elections taking place Saturday across Nigeria. In April, the militants prevented voting in some areas during presidential and parliamentary elections.

Local groups accuse the government and oil companies of colluding to prevent oil revenues from reaching impoverished Niger Delta communities.

Oil executives complain that President Olusegun Obasanjo, who won re-election on April 19, lets violence and sabotage operations get out of control in oil producing areas.