[center]Nigeria militants rescue two German hostages [/center]
14 Aug 2008 21:01:33 GMT
ABUJA, Aug 14 (Reuters) - Nigeria's most prominent militant group on Thursday rescued two German hostages seized by an armed gang, an unprecedented intervention by a group that has wrought havoc on the OPEC member's oil sector.
The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) said this was the first time it had freed hostages taken by another armed gang since it launched a campaign of violence against the oil sector in early 2006.
"(MEND) concluded a successful rescue of the two German hostages and staff of Julius Berger , from inside the heavily fortified hideout of the group that kidnapped them," the group said in an e-mailed statement.
MEND, responsible for attacks that have cut a fifth of Nigeria's oil output since early 2006, released the two men near the oil hub Port Harcourt. A Julius Berger source confirmed the two employees had been freed.
MEND said it carried out the rescue operation after discovering that one of the hostages had suffered severe spinal injuries during his abduction.
The two Germans were seized on July 11 at Emohua in Rivers state in the Niger Delta, an area notorious for kidnappings.
The kidnapping by around 15 gunmen, travelling in armoured jeeps accompanied by 28 soldiers, was so brutal that Julius Berger, the country's largest construction firm, decided to suspend all operations in the delta.
MEND announced about a week later it had identified the kidnappers and would seek the release of the hostages.
The militant group said it wanted to intervene because the pair were not part of the energy sector but were working to help build the delta's infrastructure.
Among other projects, the Nigerian unit of German builder Bilfinger Berger <GBFG.DE> is rebuilding the main east-west road across the Niger Delta and is one of the country's biggest private sector employers, with more than 16,000 employees.
Julius Berger has yet to resume its work in the delta, prompting MEND to increase its pressure on the company by threatening earlier this month to attack its foreign employees unless it halted operations in the capital, Abuja.
MEND said it would drop the threat once Julius Berger returned to the Niger Delta.
MEND, which is split between a number of different factions, says it is fighting for development and greater local control of the delta's resources.
But the breakdown of law and order in the region has allowed criminal gangs to thrive by kidnapping for ransom and stealing crude oil.
More than 200 foreigners have been seized in the Niger Delta since early 2006. Almost all have been released unharmed. (Editing by Tume Ahemba and Tim Pearce)