Freed oilmen thought they would die as 'sacrifices'

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The Independent Online

Three of the four Scots oil workers kidnapped in Nigeria this month have told how they were held by armed guards for almost three weeks, beaten with machetes and told they were to be killed as "sacrifices".

Graeme Buchan, 30, Paul Smith, 32, and Sandy Cruden, 45, from Inverurie, who were reunited with their families yesterday in Aberdeen, were among seven men, including George McLean, 43, from Elgin, seized from the Exxon Mobil compound in Port Harcourt on 3 October.

They were taken on an eight-hour speedboat journey into the Niger Delta swamps, and held in a makeshift camp under tarpaulins as the kidnappers demanded a £21m ransom. At one point, Mr Buchan had a gun held to his head and was forced to phone his company, Aberdeen-based Sparrows Offshore Ltd, and say his colleague Paul Smith had died. The false information was relayed to Mr Smith's family in Peterhead and his wife, Paula, told their four-year-old son, Jordan, that his father was dead. Their younger son, Kieran, is two.

Only when the men were released on Saturday and Mr Smith phoned home did his family realise all the hostages were safe.

Mr Buchan, from Peterhead, said the seven men - the Scots, plus a Romanian, Malaysian and Indonesian, who were all released on Saturday - had been sitting with friends in a bar when the gang ran in, firing AK-47s and pistols. Two Nigerian security men were killed in the gunfight.

"We are three ordinary guys caught up in an extraordinary event," said Mr Buchan. "We were hot by day, cold at night and wet all the time. Although we were given rice and water every day, we were always worried because we did not have our malaria tablets. That was a big fear. We kept each other's spirits up talking about home and food and our families, and food, and football, and food."

Mr Buchan said that at first they were threatened but not beaten. "Our captors seemed to be heavy drug users and maybe that kept them peaceful," he said. "But after 10 days they started to get panicky. We were split up and beaten with sticks, slapped with machetes and suchlike. At that stage, we did start to get more concerned."

Mr Buchan said their lowest point came when their captors said they were going to die. "We were told we were going to a festival to be sacrificed," he said. Of the call he was forced to make to his company about Mr Smith, he added: "I'm afraid the gun at my head may have uncovered a talent for acting I didn't know I had."

Paula Smith said yesterday: "When I heard Paul's voice, I said, 'Is that really you?' I was hysterical and I was crying and I was shouting his name. Even after I put the phone down it was hard to take in that I'd heard his voice. I'm just so glad that he and the other hostages are all free and safe," Mrs Smith said. She said she would not allow her husband to go back to Nigeria.

Mr Buchan said their release was "very sudden". He added: "Our captors ordered us to pack up the camp. The leaders left, then we were taken to a rendezvous in the speedboat and handed over to Nigerian state security officers." He said their thoughts were with the families of the two security guards who died.