Armed militants holding nine foreign oil workers hostage in Nigeria's troubled Niger Delta, on Friday released photos of the captives for the first time but denied entering into talks with the government over their release.
Photographs e-mailed to reporters showed the hostages, who have spent a week in captivity, sitting or standing around in the company of more than two dozen masked men clad in military fatigues and armed with automatic rifles, machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades. Close-ups showed the hostages looking well but unshaved.
"There have been reports that negotiations are ongoing towards the release of these individuals. This is absolutely untrue," the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) said in a statement sent with the pictures.
The group, whose attacks on oil installations in the past week have cut Nigeria's oil exports by more than 20 percent, threatened to launch more attacks "without further warning".
MEND claims to be fighting for the interests of ethnic Ijaws, the majority ethnic group in the oil-rich delta, whose impoverished inhabitants accuse joint ventures run by oil multinationals with the Nigerian state, of polluting their environment and cheating them out of oil wealth produced in their own backyard.
Apart from demanding the release of Ijaw militia leader Moujahid Dokubo-Asari, held on treason charges, and Diepreye Alamieyeseigha, former governor of Bayelsa State held for corruption in exchange for the hostages, the group wants Shell to pay out US $1.5 billion in compensation for pollution to Ijaw communities, as ordered by the Nigerian Senate in 2004.
A legal challenge mounted by the oil giant to the Senate decision suffered a setback on Friday when a federal high court in the oil industry capital of Port Harcourt ruled that Shell was obliged to make the payment. Justice Okechukwu Okeke held that both Shell and the communities had agreed to be bound by the mediation of the lawmakers in their dispute.
MEND has claimed responsibility for seizing the nine foreigners during a raid on a barge last Saturday belonging to U.S. oil service company Willbros on the Forcados River in the delta. The group gave the names and nationalities of the hostages, three U.S. nationals, two Egyptians, two Thai nationals, a Briton and a Filipino.
MEND has also said it damaged Shell's Forcados oil export terminal, ruptured a major oil pipeline belonging to the oil giant near its Chanomi Creek oil pumping station, and another gas pipeline belonging to the state-owned Nigerian Gas Company. Shell said it has been forced by the attacks to close all its operations in the western Niger Delta, accounting for some 445,000 barrels daily or about 50 percent of its Nigerian output.
MEND said the latest attacks were in direct response to air attacks by the Nigerian military on ethnic Ijaw villages in the delta days earlier. The Nigerian military had said the attacks targeted barges used by criminal gangs to siphon crude oil from pipelines in the delta for sale to accomplice vessels waiting offshore.
Security agencies say the illegal trade in crude oil is the source of funds for armed groups flourishing in the oil region in recent years. Nigeria estimates losses to the illegal trade to amount at times to as much as 10 percent of its daily exports of 2.5 million barrels a da.
More than 15 years of restiveness in the oil-rich delta, where impoverished locals accuse successive Nigerian governments and oil companies of depriving them of the wealth produced on their land, has escalated in recent months into guerrilla warfare, with armed groups seeking to take control of the oil resources by force.