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Five hostage crewmen in January hijacking off Nigeria freed; no word on ransom

AFP-JIJI

Niger Delta oil rebels have freed five foreign hostages seized last month off the coast of Nigeria, a maritime consultancy firm and the Russian foreign ministry said on Thursday.

The Greek-flagged chemical tanker MT Leon Dias was hijacked on Jan. 29 near Brass in the restive oil-rich region, in southern Nigeria.

The attackers left the vessel two days later, but took away two Filipinos, two Russians and one Georgian as hostages.

“Our understanding is that the kidnapped crew members were released on Saturday,” Dirk Steffen, director of maritime security at the Denmark-based Risk Intelligence firm, told AFP.

He did not give details of the release and whether any ransom money was paid.

But he said militants agitating for a fairer share of oil revenue in the region carried out the hijacking, contrary to initial reports that members of a pro-Biafran group seeking a separate homeland for the Igbo people of southeast Nigeria were to blame.

“The kidnappers were from the southern Niger Delta. They were not Biafran separatists as had been initially reported,” he said.

“The Nigerian military and intelligence services have absolved the Biafran agitators from any involvement shortly after the incident,” he added.

The Movement for the Actualisation of a Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB) denied any involvement to AFP soon after the hijacking.

In Moscow, the Russian foreign ministry confirmed the release of its nationals on the seized vessel, saying they were safe and would return home.

Scores of kidnappings for ransom have occurred in the Niger Delta in recent years. Most hostages have been freed after payment of a ransom.

Ship hijackings have become more frequent since President Muhammadu Buhari took office last year and starting winding down amnesty cash deals previously offered to Niger Delta militants in a bid to plug a ballooning government deficit.

The Control Risk consultancy told reporters in Lagos on Thursday there had been 24 cases of “piracy and armed robbery at sea” since the turn of the year — double that recorded in the final two months of 2015.