By Randy Fabi
ABUJA (Reuters) - Nigeria's main militant group in the oil-rich Niger Delta said on Sunday it would seek the release of two German construction workers kidnapped by armed gunmen more than a week ago.
The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), which has led a campaign of violence against oil facilities since early 2006, said it would intervene because the pair were not part of the energy sector but were working to help build the delta's infrastructure.
Unidentified gunmen on July 11 kidnapped the two employees of Nigeria's biggest construction firm Julius Berger, a unit of Germany's Bilfinger Berger, near the Nigerian oil city of Port Harcourt.
Around 15 gunmen ambushed the convoy of armoured jeeps by blowing one of the vehicles off the road with dynamite and killing a soldier.The kidnapping prompted the company to suspend its operations in the Niger Delta, the heart of oil production in the world's eighth largest exporter.
Among other projects, Julius Berger is rebuilding the main east-west road across the Niger Delta and is one of Nigeria's biggest private sector employers, with more than 16,000 staff. Companies operating in Africa's top producer have been struggling to cope with a wave of violence in the vast wetlands, fuelled by widespread poverty, corruption and lawlessness. MEND has focused its attacks mainly on Nigeria's oil workers and facilities, cutting output by a fifth in the last two years and helping push world oil prices to record highs.
The group, which is split between a number of different factions, say they are fighting for greater local control of the Niger Delta's resources.But the breakdown of law and order in the region has also allowed criminal gangs to thrive by kidnapping for ransom and stealing crude.
More than 200 foreigners have been seized in the Niger Delta since early 2006. Almost all have been released unharmed