Thursday's abduction of a three-year-old British girl in the troubled Niger Delta has spotlighted the deteriorating security situation in the oil-rich nation of Nigeria.
Although Margaret Hill is the first foreign child to be kidnapped in Nigeria, more than 200 foreigners, mostly oil workers, have been taken hostage over the past 18 months. Militants in the lawless Niger Delta began targeting foreign-run oil companies because they say locals benefit little from the nation's petrol resources.
In the most recent kidnapping, the girl's mother told the BBC that the captors threatened to kill the child unless her father took her place. Mike Hill, a Briton who has lived in Nigeria for 10 years, has agreed to the demands, but so far no exchange has taken place.
Mrs [Oluchi] Hill, a Nigerian national, said the kidnappers told her to meet them in a town in Bayelsa State in the Niger Delta region, but that neither she nor the police had been able to locate it.
"They say I can bring my husband to swap with the baby," she said. "He wanted to go down for his baby but the police commander told him not to."
No strangers to the region's turmoil, both Mr. and Mrs. Hill have evaded prior kidnapping attempts. The Daily Champion, a Lagos newspaper, reports that 24 hours before his child's abduction, Mr. Hill avoided hostage takers. A year ago his wife, a Nigerian national, was in a bar when militants stormed in and abducted two foreigners. Following the abduction of Margaret Hill, a Daily Champion correspondent says the bar is now "under lock and key."
The Times, a London newspaper, reports that since the end of 2005, abductions have become an almost weekly occurrence. No hostages have been killed and most are released unharmed once the ransom demands are met. At least 12 foreigners are currently in captivity. Many governments have "huge, unregulated security slush funds" to deal with paying ransoms. Kidnapping has become an established industry in Southern Nigeria.
"This [the Margaret Hill abduction] is entrepreneurial kidnapping of the type you used to see in Colombia or Mexico. The girl will not be in serious danger, but it is a very disturbing new game in town," an expatriate resident in the city said.
Militant groups, often linked to criminal gangs demanding a bigger share of the deeply impoverished region's enormous oil wealth, began kidnapping foreign oil workers and attacking oil installations about 18 months ago.
The region's dominant militant group, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), has denied any involvement in the most recent kidnapping. In an e-mail to The Associated Press, the group's spokesperson said, "We will join in the hunt for the monsters who carried out this abduction and mete out adequate punishment for this crime." Earlier this week MEND called off a month-long cease-fire because it was displeased with the pace of negotiations with the new government of President Yar'Adua, who came to power after a disputed election in April.
The disparity of wealth in the Niger Delta has also angered militants. The gross domestic product of the three top oil-producing states in the Niger Delta is equal to that of a "growing centeral European country like Croatia," and the annual budget of the river states is larger than the budgets of many African countries. Yet "the Niger Delta region remains poor. Roads are potholed and often unpaved, schools and hospitals are few and understaffed, and most rural residents have no access to electricity or clean drinking water," reports The Christian Science Monitor. In a May interview, Ateke Tom, leader of MEND's rival group the Niger Delta Vigilantes, said he was "fighting to ensure that the oil wealth that is pumped out of his region is used to develop his region." Mr. Tom's group has also been active in kidnapping foreign oil workers.
The Hill kidnapping came a day after militants abducted an Australian, two New Zealanders, a Lebanese, and a Venezuelan from a Royal Dutch Shell oil rig in the Niger Delta. The Independent reports that New Zealand government officials have refused to meet the kidnappers' demands.
"It's never been the New Zealand government's policy to pay ransoms and I don't expect that to change," said the Prime Minister, Helen Clark. She maintained the situation in the Niger Delta was not "particularly dangerous from a personal security point of view. There has been considerable instability in Nigeria, particularly around oil company related issues. So people do go to work there knowing it's not the safest place to be".
Back in New Zealand one hostage's wife, Gilly Sannazzaro, remains optimistic that her husband, Brent Goddard, will be released unharmed. She told The Dominion Post that Mr. Goddard had always liked working in Nigeria and will likely continue to work there after his release, provided she allows him to stay in Nigeria.
He told her to put her concerns about safety in perspective, she said. "He said you can get stabbed walking down Courtenay Place [in New Zealand] at 2am.
"My perspective was that we don't have gunmen with semi-automatics on Courtenay Place."
In Australia, hostage Jason Lane's father, a former oil worker himself, said that such kidnappings are common and he is confident that his son will be released without incident, reports the Australian Associated Press.
"I'm quite relaxed about the whole situation," he told ABC Radio.
"Last night I was (worried) because I didn't know where he was or who'd taken him.
"But now they know where he is and actually who's taken him - but they haven't actually said who's taken him - and he's not in any harm."
Indeed, attitudes like that of Lane's father are common, and oil industry jobs in hazardous overseas locations remain popular. Salaries can start at $100,000 per year and easily triple. Matthew Pasco, who has worked in Nigeria and plans to return soon, told New Zealand's The Press that working on Nigerian oil rigs offers good pay and an attractive work schedule with excellent travel opportunities. He is optimistic that the hostages will be released soon and is not concerned about his imminent return to the volatile country.
"There have been moments, but I've managed to miss a lot of it," he said. "My rig got hijacked just as I left, so the company I'm working for shut down operations for a couple of weeks.
"I was going to go back earlier but they put us on stand-by for a couple of weeks."
Pasco's employers decided it was "reasonably safe, enough to continue operations", so he would be heading back.