The government's security crackdown in the troubled Niger Delta has provoked a huge debate in Nigeria regarding the best strategy to deal with violence in the region. Some Nigerian leaders are advocating new ways to deal with the problem.

Niger Delta activists are worried small gangs out for quick money in the region could be undermining their cause.

The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, known as MEND, the main militant group in the campaign for greater local control of oil wealth, says recent kidnappings of oil workers for ransom are a huge distraction.

The group ordered the release Tuesday of an Italian oil worker kidnapped last week in Nigeria. Mario Paresi was abducted at gunpoint from a bar in the main oil city of Port Harcourt, the eighth such incident in the region this month.

The Nigerian House of Representatives' powerful Committee on Navy has conducted numerous studies and public hearings on the Niger Delta, particularly the use of military force in the area.

Committee chairman Anthony Aziegbemi says any security crackdown should target criminal elements and not those fighting for greater resources.

"I think clearly, military option alone would not surely do this," Aziegbemi said. "Outright criminals in the place, people that engage in illegal bunkering [stealing], people that engage in vandalizing of pipelines and stealing of petroleum products ... these people have to be separated from the normal and appropriate agitation of people of the Niger Delta for more developmental projects. Those people have to be dealt with separately."

Analysts say a more cautious approach is desirable to avoid an escalation of violence, which could jeopardize the struggling oil industry even further.

President Olusegun Obasanjo earlier this month ordered security to crack down on kidnappers.

Gamaliel Onosode,a leading businessman and a Delta activist, says the deep-seated anger in the region could ease with the implementation of a government development blueprint.

"We will have to work together in order to reassure those of us who are from the Niger Delta that there is a change of heart and that the long-standing problems of the region will be addressed in a manner that would convince everyone that a new day has dawned," he said.

Meanwhile, security forces confirmed the arrest of 15 suspects believed to be responsible for kidnappings and violence in the region in the past few weeks.

Last week in Abuja, four suspected militants were charged with terrorism. At least 40 expatriate workers have been kidnapped and released since January.