Nigerian rebels claim to locate kidnapped French workers

Nigeria`s main rebel group is trying to get the captives in their custody.

Lagos: Nigeria`s main rebel group MEND claimed to have located three Frenchmen and another seaman kidnapped on Wednesday in the oil-rich Niger Delta and said they were trying to get the captives in their custody.

"The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) can confirm that it has located the three abducted French nationals and another individual abducted in a separate incident on the same night," the group said in a statement.

MEND said it was in negotiations with the abductors to try have the men transferred into its custody.

"When this is done, we will be in a better position to give further information about their state of health and the duration of their stay with us."

The kidnapping is the second hostage drama for French energy workers in West Africa in less than a week.

The Nigerian Navy, which patrols the Niger Delta and guards offshore oil installations, tried to fight off the pirates in a gun battle that lasted more than two hours, its spokesman said.

Navy spokesman David Nabaida said three French and a Thai seamen -- crew of the oil industry supply vessel -- were seized in the overnight raid on an oil platform off Bonny Island, Nigeria`s main export terminal.

But MEND said the French crew and the Thai seaman were taken in separate incidents.

"Everything is being done to ensure we rescue these people and we hope that will be soon," Navy spokesman Nabaida said.

"They (the attackers) were very well armed. There was a serious exchange of gunfire between them and our men, for close to two-and-a-half-hours.”

"I think these are just criminal elements trying to make money," he added, allaying fears that there might be a political motive just days after five other French uranium workers were kidnapped by al Qaeda militants in the west African nation of Niger.

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner referred to past kidnappings of foreign oil workers in the area, saying: "We have unfortunately this experience before and I hope they will be freed fairly soon.”

"I don`t have any precise news," he said.

The sailors` employer, French maritime services firm Bourbon, and the French Foreign Ministry said they had contacted the kidnapped workers` families and were working with Nigerian authorities to secure their release.

"Everything points to it being a classic act of piracy," French Defence Minister Herve Morin told France 24 television.

There have been no reports of ransom demands.

Wednesday`s drama came less than a week after five French nationals working in neighbouring Niger`s uranium fields were captured, in an unrelated attack that has already stretched French assets in the region.

The sailors were abducted when pirates equipped with several speedboats attacked the French-flagged Bourbon Alexandre, a 2,000-tonne tug and supply ship.

"The 13 other crew members have remained on board and nobody has been injured," Bourbon said in a statement.

Bureau Report