Nigeria nabs 4 over ransom for abducted oil worker

LAGOS, Nigeria (Reuters) -- Nigerian secret police have nabbed four people, including a member of a previously unknown group, over the abduction of a Lebanese man for ransom in the oil-producing Niger Delta, officials said on Monday.

The abduction of the Lebanese construction worker on August 16 is one of eight separate kidnappings in the southern wetlands this month. All but three of the 19 hostages have been released, mostly after payment of ransoms.

A member of the Niger Delta Enlightenment and Expedition Force, which had written to the State Security Service demanding a ransom, was arrested in the Delta state capital of Asaba when he came for the money.

Three staff of the firm where the abducted Lebanese worked were also arrested after they tried to deliver the ransom money.

"Both the givers and taker of the money were arrested by the SSS on Friday. They are still being interrogated," a government spokesman said by telephone from Asaba.

The arrests come after President Olusegun Obasanjo ordered the security services to crack down on kidnappers and threatened to sanction companies caught paying ransoms.

The threat signaled a change in the government's stance towards the recent upsurge in violence in the Niger Delta, which accounts for almost all of Nigeria's 2.4 million barrels of oil per day output.

To reinforce the government's tougher stance, four people arrested over an earlier kidnapping at an oil facility operated by U.S. energy giant Chevron have since been charged with terrorism. If convicted, they could face life in prison.

The government spokesman said the kidnappers of the Lebanese had demanded a five million naira ($38,955) ransom, not 50 million naira ($389,550) as reported by a local radio station on Saturday. His employers came up with 4.5 million naira ($35,060).

Abductions, mostly of foreign oil workers, are common in the volatile delta. Kidnappers have sometimes made political demands but in most cases ransoms have been paid by state governments and oil companies to free the hostages, encouraging the trend.

Last week, the Rivers state government paid 20 million naira ($155,820) for the release of six expatriate oil workers, officials said.

Nigeria's two oil unions, alarmed at the recent rash of kidnappings are to vote this week on whether to withdraw all their members from the oil-rich but impoverished Niger Delta.

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