Kidnappers seize British girl on way to school

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Kidnappers snatched a three-year-old British girl from her vehicle as it carried her to school today in Nigeria's lawless southern oil region, officials said.

Several attackers smashed a window on the vehicle as it sat in heavy morning traffic in the southern city of Port Harcourt and spirited the child away, an official at the British High Commission said.

He said the girl's father was a Briton working in Port Harcourt, but gave no more details on the identity of the parents or the man's employer.

News reports said Nigerian police had named the missing girl as Margaret Hill.

Nigerian security forces were investigating the case, said Rivers state police Spokeswoman Irejua Barasua.

Criminal kidnappings have become common in the region, where the crude in Africa's biggest producer is pumped. More than a dozen foreigners are currently in captivity and more than 200 have been taken since the end of 2005.

The targeting of women and children is uncommon, however, with attackers generally focusing on male employees of large, international companies that are presumed to have money for ransom payments.

Today's seizure was the first known recent kidnapping of a foreign child in the Niger Delta, oil industry officials said. Two other children, including one of a prominent politician, were taken this year. Both were released unharmed within days.

Hostages are generally released unharmed after a ransom is paid - often by state governments that control huge, unregulated security slush funds, according to industry officials.

At least two hostages have been killed in the crossfire when security forces crossed the kidnappers.

Yesterday, gunmen attacked an oil rig in the southern oil heartland and seized five expatriate workers: an Australian, two New Zealanders, one Lebanese and one Venezuelan. Royal Dutch Shell said it owned the rig, but that there were no production cuts reported.

The two New Zealanders were identified as Bruce Klenner and Brent Goddard by Klenner's wife, Linda.

The New Zealand government has ruled out paying any ransom for the pair.

"It's never been the New Zealand government's policy to pay ransoms, and I don't expect that to change," Prime Minister Helen Clark said Thursday.

She would not have thought of the situation as being "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," she said.

The spokesman for a top militant gang, whose one-month cease-fire ended on Tuesday, said their group was not responsible for yesterday's seizure.

The government of new President Umaru Yar'Adua is trying to calm the oil region. He has sent his deputy, who hails from the Niger Delta, back to his homeland to consult on a wider solution.

One of the best organised gangs, which has carried out a string of kidnappings and bombings, offered a one-month, unilateral truce to gauge the seriousness of the new government in tackling poverty and corruption. It ended Tuesday and was not renewed, the militant spokesman said yesterday.

While the government had met one of the militants' conditions - the release of one of the region's militant leaders - they say their main fight is for greater control of the oil funds. Despite the Niger Delta's massive natural bounty, the region remains deeply poor. Years of government corruption and mismanagement have squandered most of the funds and villagers living next to multibillion-pound oil installations have no access to electricity or clean water.

The militants stepped up their activities toward the end of 2005, with kidnappings and bombings of oil installations and pipelines that has cut about a quarter of normal oil production, sending prices higher in overseas markets.

After the militants began taking hostages for publicity, several criminal gangs followed suit, seeking ransoms. Over 200 foreigners have been taken in the region, including more than 100 this year alone.