Militants bring a hostage to river meeting, release photos of others
WARRI, Nigeria – Bristling with heavy weapons, masked militants responsible for a wave of violence targeting Nigeria’s oil industry showed off a 68-year-old American hostage Friday who appealed to the international community to help secure his release.Macon Hawkins of Kosciusko, Texas, said he turns 69 on Wednesday and wants “freedom” for his birthday.The militants, who claim to be fighting for a greater local share of the country’s oil wealth for their impoverished region, seized Hawkins and eight other foreign oil workers from a barge in the Niger Delta’s mangrove swamps Feb. 18.The 15-minute encounter Friday took place in the middle of the river with the militants in five boats and journalists in two.Hawkins seemed upbeat despite being surrounded by gunmen standing over him with Kalashnikov automatic rifles, rocket-propelled grenades and tripod-mounted machine guns.He repeated militant demands that neutral third parties like the United Nations or President Bush get involved in negotiating the release of the hostages, who also include two other Americans, two Egyptians, two Thais, one Briton and one Filipino.The militants have said they don’t trust President Olusegun Obasanjo.”You need to get the U.N. involved. They can do a lot of good,” Hawkins said.”Tell President Bush we want to get this thing settled,” he added, before the militants steered their boat around and headed back into the mangrove swamps, firing their AK-47s skyward for show.Nigeria is Africa’s leading oil exporter and the United States’ fifth-largest supplier, usually exporting 2.5 million barrels daily. The violence has cut off about 20 percent of the country’s crude production and sent oil prices up sharply in international markets.Hawkins was unshaven and his gray hair was tousled, but he wore a clean blue and red-checkered shirt and green trousers as he sat in the blue, twin-outboard skiff.He said the hostages’ nine-day captivity had been “tolerable” and they were eating noodles, eggs and tea twice daily and sleeping in air-conditioned rooms. He said they passed the hours “just chatting.””We’re being treated quite well,” Hawkins told reporters who traveled two hours by launch from the southern city of Warri. “Let’s hope it ends well.”The militants – who invited reporters to meet them in the Niger Delta but didn’t say they were bringing a hostage – also reiterated demands that two of the region’s leaders be freed from prison and demanded payment for alleged environmental damage from oil companies.Fighters of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta launched a series of attacks on the oil industry in Africa’s largest producer of crude this month.The nine hostages were abducted from a barge owned by Houston-based oil services company Willbros Group Inc., which was laying pipeline for oil giant Royal Dutch Shell.Hostage takings have been a common occurrence in the delta for years. Most have been released unharmed – like four foreigners held for 19 days who were freed last month.About three dozen militants raced around the delta’s waters Friday in the launches bearing white flags. The fighters wearing balaclava-style masks didn’t give their names as they shouted comments.They said their region hasn’t benefited since oil was discovered beneath it in the late 1950s, even before Africa’s most-populous nation gained independence from Britain in 1960.They said they want schools, health clinics, electricity and roads – and full control of the oil revenues that are apportioned out by the Abuja-based government.”Before independence, Nigeria fought for its freedom. Now we’re fighting for ours,” said one masked fighter. “If the federal government can’t take care of us, we need independence. We want to control our own oil.”Hawkins said he had seen their poverty up close and called on the international community to listen to their concerns.”These people have no schools, no hospitals,” said Hawkins. “They’re very poor, it’s time to do something.”The militants denied reports that any negotiations were taking place to secure the hostages’ release – and reiterated their demands Shell pay them $1.5 billion. Shell has rejected that demand.However, a Nigerian court on Friday ordered Shell to pay southern communities $1.5 billion in compensation for environmental pollution and degradation in the Delta.—Associated Press writer Todd Pitman in Dakar, Senegal, contributed to this report.