The past three years have seen an upsurge in violence perpetrated by armed groups in Nigeria's volatile Niger Delta.  And while attacks targeting the oil industry have been halted for now, kidnapping is on the rise. 

Police in oil-rich Niger Delta are struggling to contain a surge in gang-related kidnappings in a region where the vast majority of the population is young and unemployed.

The involvement of some members of the security forces in a recent abduction, involving the mother of a senior state official in Bayelsa state, has provoked a lot of concern in the region.  Bayelsa state police commissioner Unuoha Udeka confirmed three policemen orchestrated the abduction and collected a $20,000 ransom.

"In the issue of the kidnap of the mother of the commissioner for health, three serving policemen were involved," he said. "One of them is on the run.  Two are here with us.  We have decided to try them in orderly room so that we will be able to dismiss them before they are charged to court."

The government says more than 600 people have been kidnapped in Nigeria this year, up nearly 80 percent from last year.  Kidnappers and hostage-takers extorted ransoms of more than $100 million between 2006 and 2008.

The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, the country's main militant group, started kidnapping foreign oil workers as part of its campaign for a greater share of the region's wealth.

Criminal gangs have taken advantage of the breakdown in law and order in the Niger Delta, carrying out kidnappings for ransom and armed robberies that have left residents living in a state of insecurity.

Previously, mostly wealthy expatriates were targeted.  But more victims are now middle or working class.  Even the poorest are snatched off the streets, for ransoms as low as a few-hundred dollars.

Nigeria is considering strict new penalties, including a life sentence for kidnappers, but the death penalty will be invoked should a hostage die.  The law, if passed, would also see a 15-year sentence for anyone hiding information on hostage-takers.

The government is implementing a amnesty program in the Niger Delta aimed at ending attacks that have crippled the country's oil industry.