24 OFWs kidnapped in Nigeria

PHILIPPINE NEWS SERVICE — ALL 24 Filipinos aboard a ship seized by unidentified gunmen in Nigeria are believed to have been kidnapped, the foreign affairs department said yesterday.

Nigerian officials previously said only six of the Filipino crew of the Nigerian-flagged cargo ship Baco had been abducted, but Foreign Undersecretary Esteban Conejos told a news conference the shipping firm’s local manning agents here “handed to me a letter that contains new information.”

“We are getting a clearer picture of what happened,” he said. “The ship has a 24-member all-Filipino crew. They were moving to the Atlantic Ocean to the Niger Delta when armed men boarded the ship and took 17 Filipinos and brought them to a village in Wari.”

Seven officers are believed to still be on the ship.

“Their ship is now lying in anchorage off the coast of Wari. There is one captain, a chief officer, engine officers, chief engineer, two cooks and the rest are ordinary seamen,” Conejos said .

“There is reasonable belief that the entire crew of 24 has been held hostage because as of this time, the shipowner does not have radio contact on the ship.”

Conejos said the department would inform the families of the kidnapped seamen before revealing their names to the public.

He said the gunmen’s demands were unknown, and that Manila had dispatched its consul in that country to the local government area to consult with a negotiator appointed by the local government.

“Discussions were ongoing for the safe release of the seamen,” Conejos added.

“As of today, all Filipinos are safe and sound. There is food on the ship and they are being provided food from the village. Food and water is adequate and the seamen are treated well.

“We are very optimistic that they will be released. We have been getting 100 percent cooperation from the government of Nigeria,” Conejos said.

Baco is Nigerian-flagged but German-owned with an office in Hamburg.

The latest kidnapping marks the second time Filipinos have been held hostage in the region in the past six months.

It prompted President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo on Monday to order workers not to travel to Nigeria.

Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo’s spokesman, Remi Oyo, earlier told Agence France-Presse the Nigerian foreign minister would explain to the Filipino mission there that everything was being done “to ensure that those that have been seized get back home safe and sound.”

Oyo said Nigeria saw the Philippines as a “friendly nation” and that Mrs. Arroyo’s travel ban would be handled “in a friendly manner.”

She further said that Obasanjo “is very concerned and unhappy about the situation and he has said that his government will no longer continue to treat the hostage-takers with kid gloves.”

Foreign Affairs spokesman Ed Malaya said that Nigeria was one of the biggest employers of Filipino workers in Africa, with some 3,900 Filipinos employed there at the end of 2006.