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The New York Times: Nigeria Hostage Talks Making Progress: Obasanjo

By REUTERS
DAVOS, Switzerland (Reuters) – Nigeria is making progress in talks with the kidnappers of four foreign oil workers, President Olusegun Obasanjo said on Thursday, playing down any impact on investment in Africa's largest oil producer.
The four men were abducted from an offshore oilfield operated by Royal Dutch Shell 15 days ago by militants demanding the release of ethnic Ijaw leaders, more local control of oil wealth and compensation to delta villages for pollution.
“We are very much in contact with them,'' Obasanjo said. ''Immediately after it happened, we set up a committee … It's not only in contact, it's making progress.''
The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta's five-week campaign of violence and kidnapping has forced Shell to withdraw at least 500 staff and cut its output by 221,000 barrels a day, or one tenth of Nigerian exports, adding to fears of a global oil shortage.
Analysts have said the growing insecurity in Nigeria's southern delta, which produces nearly all of its 2.4 million barrels of oil daily, is raising the risks of doing business and scaring off some investors.
The army deployed more troops to key oil installations after armed men stormed the headquarters of Italian oil firm Agip in the delta on Tuesday, robbing a bank and killing eight policemen and one civilian. Agip is a unit of Italy's ENI.
Asked if he was concerned about the impact on oil investment, Obasanjo told Reuters at the World Economic Forum in Switzerland: “Not really.''
The militants have insisted they will not accept money for the hostages' release, and promised to stage more attacks to halt exports totally and drive away oil workers.
BREAKTHROUGH
Government officials in the southern Nigerian state of Bayelsa, one of six delta regions, said on Wednesday they believed the committee had made a breakthrough in talks to free the American, British, Bulgarian and Honduran captives.
“The hostages are close to being released, but I cannot be specific about a date,'' said Bayelsa Information Commissioner Nelson Azibolanari.
The release has been complicated by rivalry between Ijaw groups, which has risen since the impeachment of former Bayelsa state governor Diepreye Alamieyeseigha, one of the two Ijaw leaders whose release is demanded by the kidnappers. They have also asked for the release of militia boss Mujahid Dokubo-Asari, on trial for treason.
Villagers have begun to flee the delta's mangrove swamps and tidal creeks in fear of military reprisals against the highly organized, heavily armed group. Oil unions have threatened to pull members out of the region if security deteriorates further, after dozens of people have been killed in recent raids.
Obasanjo declined to comment when asked if he believed the crisis would be resolved by negotiation or by force.
“There are two situations, if you like. There's the immediate situation of the hostages, and we have to get the hostages released, and then there's the situation of criminality in the Niger Delta, that's a different issue altogether,'' Obasanjo told Reuters Television at Davos.
The militants' demands for more local control over the delta's oil wealth is echoed by the region's politicians, who are also vying with other zones for the ruling party's presidential nomination in elections next year.
Analysts say this means the violence against the oil industry is likely to continue into 2007.

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