* Hostages released after air, land and sea operation
* Those freed include French, U.S., Canadian, Indonesians
* Former militants instrumental in securing their release
(Adds quotes, details, background throughout)
By Nick Tattersall
LAGOS, Nov 17 (Reuters) - Nigeria’s military rescued 19 hostages including foreigners being held by militants in the Niger Delta oil region in a land, air and sea operation on Wednesday, security sources said.
Those freed included two Americans, two Frenchmen, two Indonesians and a Canadian taken from an Afren AFRE.L oil rig, eight Nigerians abducted from an Exxon Mobil XOM.N platform and four others, two sources involved in the operation said.
“It was a land, air and marine assault. They have all been freed, all 19 of them,” one of the sources told Reuters, asking not to be named due to the sensitive nature of the operation.
The release of the hostages is a boost for President Goodluck Jonathan ahead of elections next April.
As the first Nigerian head of state from the Niger Delta and the man who brokered an amnesty with militants in the region last year, resurgent unrest risked undermining his credibility.
The military taskforce responsible for security in the vast wetlands region, the heartland of Africa’s biggest oil and gas industry, said earlier it was carrying out several operations simultaneously across the Niger Delta but gave no details.
A military spokesman declined to comment further on the operation or confirm whether the hostages had been freed, saying a statement would be issued on Thursday. There was no immediate comment from the companies whose employees were abducted.
France’s Foreign Minister confirmed two of its nationals had been released:
“This happy ending does not make us forget the fate of the other French nationals still held hostage, for which the government is as mobilised as ever,” French Foreign Minister Michele Alliot-Marie said, refering to French nationals held elsewhere.
France now has eight nationals held overseas including five in Mali, two in Afghanistan and one in Somalia.
A second security source involved in planning the operation said former militant leaders who accepted the amnesty brokered by Jonathan last year had been instrumental in securing the safe release of the kidnapped oil workers.
“There was a strong element of co-operation between the former militant leadership and the security forces in the release of the 19 hostages,” the security source said.
“What happened today in Nigeria has never happened before. It shows the strength not only of the security forces but of the former militant leadership and the amnesty programme,” the source said, also asking not to be named.
The release of the hostages appears to mark a key victory for the authorities in the Niger Delta at a time when militants, who have in the past caused major disruption to the OPEC member’s mainstay industry, have been staging a comeback.
Previous campaigns by militant fighters have knocked out a significant chunk of Nigeria’s oil production, currently averaging about 2.2 million barrels per day (bpd), and cost it as much as $1 billion a month in lost revenues.
The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), the main militant group in the region, claimed responsibility for the attacks on Afren and Exxon and has warned of further strikes against energy industry facilities.
It had also warned the security forces against any operation to free the hostages, saying it would endanger their lives.
Those held included eight Nigerians taken on Sunday from a platform operated by U.S. firm Exxon Mobil. [ID:nLDE6AE188]
Of the seven hostages taken from the Afren rig a week earlier, the two Americans and one of the Frenchmen were employees of Swiss-based Transocean RIG.N. A second Frenchman worked for France's Sodexo EXHO.PA, the Indonesians worked for Century Energy Ltd CEY.V and the Canadian worked for local firm Petroleum Projects International (PPI), according to MEND.
Security sources praised the role of former militant leaders in helping to plan the operation, saying it marked a new turning point in the battle to tame armed militancy.
Several MEND field commanders agreed to lay down their weapons last year and the government says thousands of their gang members followed suit, in return for a presidential pardon, stipends, and the promise of re-training.
But the militants were always factionalised and new leaders started to emerge. The Yahoo! email address from which MEND issues warnings has changed several times recently as the security forces clamp down, but the statements have all been signed Jomo Gbomo, the pseudonym used by the group for years. Henry Okah, believed to be one of the masterminds behind MEND, has been detained in South Africa in connection with car bomb attacks in the Nigerian capital Abuja on Oct. 1 which killed at least 10 people and were claimed by the group. [ID:nLDE69H1SU]
His brother Charles, believed to have been one of the writers of the Jomo Gbomo emails, was also arrested last month in Lagos after a warning of more bombs in Abuja. [ID:nLDE69I1WV]
The creeks of the Niger Delta are awash with weapons and unemployed youths, and attacks on exposed oil infrastructure are relatively easy to organise. But the arrests and military action appeared to have weakened the militants, security sources said.
“It’s a great development. Things are not quite as new MEND would have you believe,” one of the sources said. (Reporting by Nick Tattersall; Editing by Matthew Jones)