Nigerian police raid kidnapping ring in southeast-chief

ONITSHA, Nigeria Wed Oct 24, 2012 9:59am EDT

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ONITSHA, Nigeria (Reuters) - Nigerian police said on Wednesday they had raided the hideout of a major kidnapping ring in the southeast, rescuing a hostage, killing three kidnappers in a shootout and arresting three others.

Nigeria is one of the worst countries in the world for kidnapping for ransom, a major criminal enterprise worth millions of dollars a year in Africa's second biggest economy.

Police chief for southeastern Anambra state Bala Nasarawa said police raided the kidnappers' hideout in the city of Ihiala on Tuesday, but they came under fire. They killed three in return fire and seized three others from the building, also freeing their Nigerian hostage, a man named Jonathan Onyekwulu, he said.

"They have been responsible for most kidnappings in the state and environs," he said, adding that the gang's leader was arrested a few months ago and had helped police track them down.

"Our operatives are working assiduously to track down fleeing wounded members of the syndicate," after the shootout, Nasarawa said, giving no details of how many had fled.

They had recovered a rocket launcher, four rockets, 18 AK-47 assault rifle magazines and several rifles, he added.

Anambra state is among the parts of Nigeria worst affected by kidnapping, which include the oil-rich southeast and areas in and around the commercial hub of Lagos in the southwest.

State governor Peter Obi launched a crackdown on kidnapping gangs last month, giving national police authority to seal off or destroy the property of suspected gang members.

Foreigners are sometimes targets of abductions, especially oil workers, although this has sharply decreased since a 2009 amnesty with militants in the oil-producing Niger Delta.

Pirates off the coast of Nigeria seized six Russians and an Estonian during an attack on their ship on Monday October 17.

Local newspapers carry a story about a new kidnapping almost every day, usually of professionals or relatives of politicians. The nation reported on Wednesday that the mother of legislator Abiodun Balogun had been kidnapped in southwestern Ogun state.

Police say kidnappings often increase towards Christmas, when gang members need more money for festivities and gifts.

(Reporting by Anamesere Igboeroteonwu; Writing by Tim Cocks)

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