Sat, Jul 07, 2007 - Page 6 News List

Nigerian gunmen kidnap UK girl


Gunmen smashed in the windows of a car carrying a British girl to school and kidnapped the three-year-old, marking the first seizure of a foreign child in Nigeria's increasingly lawless oil region.

In London, the British government called for the immediate release of Margaret Hill, whose father was said to work in the oil industry and who was taken from her car as it idled in Port Harcourt's heavy morning traffic on Thursday.

Nigerian community leaders were outraged.

"Taking an innocent child by force is a criminal act that should be roundly condemned by Nigerians," said Anabs Saraigbe, an influential chief of the ethnic Ijaw people who predominate in the region. "Such dastardly acts can't take us anywhere and must stop."

More than 200 foreigners have been kidnapped since militants stepped up their activities against the oil industry in late 2005 and more than 100 expatriates have been seized this year alone as criminal gangs took up the practice.

Kidnappers have focused mostly on foreign, male workers of international companies presumed to have the resources available for ransom payments.

While two children of wealthy Nigerians have been seized in the restive Niger Delta in recent weeks, Margaret's seizure was the first of a foreign child -- indicating yet one more barrier toppled in an increasingly restive region where hospitality is normally venerated.

Both Nigerian children were released within days without injury.

A local radio station aired an interview with a woman identified as a witness to Thursday's abduction who said seven gunmen scared away onlookers by firing rifles in the air.

They then broke in the windows with their gunstocks, dragged out the child and bundled her away in a Peugeot, the woman told radio station Rhythm FM.

In London, Britain's Foreign Office called for Margaret's "immediate safe release."

Acquaintances of Margaret's family said her father is a longtime resident of Nigeria who works for a firm performing contract work in Nigeria's oil industry, which is the continent's largest.

They also said he was the owner of a renowned Port Harcourt night spot popular with expatriate workers. The bar was shuttered on Thursday.

Kidnappings have become common in the region, where the crude in Africa's biggest producer is pumped.

More than a dozen foreigners are currently in captivity, including five seized on Wednesday from a Royal Dutch Shell oil rig.

Hostages are generally released unharmed after a ransom is paid -- often by state governments that control huge, unregulated security slush funds, with officials taking a cut, according to industry officials.

At least two hostages have been killed in the crossfire when security forces closed in on the kidnappers.

The government of new Nigerian President Umaru Yar'Adua is trying to calm the oil region, where security began worsening with the emergence of a new militant group in late 2005.

The militants, whose bombings and kidnappings have cut Nigeria's normal oil output by about 25 percent, say they are fighting to force the federal government to give the Niger Delta region a greater share of state oil money.

Despite four decades of oil production, the region remains among the poorest anywhere in Africa, a situation residents blame on official corruption and mismanagement of government money.

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