Gunmen attacked a vessel off the coast of Nigeria's oil-rich southern delta, kidnapping six foreigners in an area that has become increasingly dangerous for oil companies and shippers, a police official said Wednesday.
Three Ukrainians, two Indians and a Russian were taken from a vessel run by energy company Century Group 70 kilometers (43 miles) off Nigeria's southern coast on Sunday, Bayelsa police spokesman Fidelis Odunna said. The kidnappers have demanded a 200 million naira ($1.27 million) ransom.
Typically, foreign companies operating in Nigeria's Niger Delta pay cash ransoms to free their employees after negotiating down kidnappers' demands. Foreign hostages can fetch hundreds of thousands of dollars apiece.
Foreign companies have pumped oil out of the Niger Delta, a region of mangroves and swamps the size of Portugal, for more than 50 years. Despite the billions of dollars flowing into Nigeria's government, many in the delta remain desperately poor, living in polluted waters without access to proper medical care, education or work. The poor conditions sparked an uprising in 2006 by militants and opportunistic criminals who blew up oil pipelines and kidnapped foreign workers.
That violence ebbed in 2009 with a government-sponsored amnesty program that offered ex-fighters monthly payments and job training. However, few in the delta have seen the promised benefits and sporadic kidnappings and attacks continue.
Pirate attacks are on the rise in West Africa's Gulf of Guinea, which follows the continent's southward curve from Liberia to Gabon. Over the last year and a half, piracy there has escalated from low-level armed robberies to hijackings and cargo thefts. Last year, London-based Lloyd's Market Association - an umbrella group of insurers - listed Nigeria, neighboring Benin and nearby waters in the same risk category as Somalia, where two decades of war and anarchy have allowed piracy to flourish.
Experts say many of the pirates in the area come from Nigeria, where corrupt law enforcement allows criminality to thrive and there's a bustling black market for stolen crude oil. Nigeria's lawless waters and often violent oil region routinely see foreigners kidnapped for ransom. Increasingly, criminal gangs also have targeted middle- and upper-class Nigerians as well.