Nigerian military rescues 19 hostages, including Canadian

A Canadian oil rig worker kidnapped this month by militants in the Niger Delta was freed along with 18 other hostages Wednesday after an operation led by Nigerian security forces.

Robert Croke, of St. John’s, Nfld., and his six American, French and Indonesian co-workers were kidnapped off an oil rig in the turbulent region by armed assailants from the militant group Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND).

Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon said in statement that “I am greatly relieved to confirm that Mr. Croke has been released and is now safe.”

Eight Nigerian staff kidnapped from an Exxon Mobil platform Sunday were also freed Wednesday, along with four other hostages.

Croke, 51, is a married drilling specialist working for Texas-based oil and gas production and construction company PPI Technology Services.

“I have ensured that through our officials he receives consular assistance and is able to be reunited with his family as soon as possible,” Cannon said.

Gary McBeath, a colleague and friend, said Croke is “a family man first, and just all-around good guy.”

McBeath said that Croke, like all rig workers, was aware of the dangers of his job.

“It’s always a concern for everybody, and Bob, he knew the risks going to Nigeria, as we all do.”

One Nigerian security source said “it was a land, air and marine assault.” Another said, “there was a strong element of cooperation between the former militant leadership and the security forces in the release of the 19 hostages.”

Many of Nigeria’s militant groups had agreed to a ceasefire after years of attacks that crippled the company’s lucrative oil industry.

MEND initially held out but finally agreed to an amnesty in 2009, with militant leaders handing over arms to the government.

After this month’s attack, emails from an address not previously associated with the group claimed that the hostages “will be in our custody for a while” and that “our fighters (caused) extensive damage on this facility and attempted to set it ablaze as they were instructed to do.”

Philippe Le Billon from the Liu Institute for Global Issues at the University of British Columbia said in an email that there were many reasons MEND may have broken the ceasefire. But one “likely” cause was that it was a move against Rilwanu Lukman, the founder of Afren, the company operating the rig.

Lukman was Minister of Petroleum Resources for the Nigerian government before leaving office in March. He “is now less well protected while his private Nigerian oil company is perceived as a threat by a number of people,” including the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation, Le Billon said.

The question, Le Billon said, is whether Wednesday’s successful hostage rescue by Nigerian security forces will lead to further crackdowns on militant camps, which would effectively end the amnesty.

During the years that militant groups were regularly attacking rigs in the Niger Delta, Nigeria’s oil production was cut by approximately one million barrels a day and Angola took over as Africa’s leading oil producer.

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