Nigerian militants free British hostage

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Nigeria's most prominent militant group yesterday released one of two British hostages that were kidnapped in the restive Niger Delta seven months ago.

Hundreds of foreigners have been seized in the Delta, home to Africa's biggest oil and gas industry, since The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) launched a campaign of violence in early 2006 to push for what it considers to be a fairer share of the profits from crude oil extraction. Most have been freed unharmed after a few weeks.

MEND, responsible for attacks that have cut Nigeria's oil production by one fifth in recent years, had said it would release the Briton because of his health and age. It added that no ransom was paid.

"MEND can confirm that the British hostage Mr Robin Barry Hughes regained his freedom about 1730 hours today," a spokesman for the group said in an emailed statement.

Military and diplomatic officials also confirmed his release in Port Harcourt, capital of Rivers state in southeastern Nigeria.

Hughes, an employee with the Lagos-based oil services company Hydrodive, had been held hostage since 9 September, along with another Briton, Matthew John Maguire.

"The remaining hostage, Mr Maguire, will remain in our custody until further notice," MEND said.

The men's captivity is unusually long for foreign hostages in Nigeria.

The two Britons were among more than 20 people taken when their oil supply vessel was hijacked in early September.

MEND said a few weeks later it had "rescued" all of them from their original captors. It freed all the hostages except the Britons, who it said were being held as "leverage".

In February MEND said one of the two British hostages was "very ill", but did not name him.

The militants had threatened to keep the two Britons until the Nigerian authorities freed one of their leaders, Henry Okah, who is on trial for treason and gun-running.

MEND said it had freed Hughes after Okah requested it on "compassionate grounds".