Nigerian gang kidnaps young daughter of British oil consultant on way to school
London Guardian | July 6, 2007
Julian Borger and Olly Owen
The Foreign Office yesterday demanded the "immediate safe release" of a three-year-old British girl kidnapped in the Nigerian oil city of Port Harcourt, amid a worsening spate of abductions.
Margaret Hill was seized by up to seven gunmen in a Honda car, who stopped in front of the car taking her to school, smashed its windows with their guns and stabbed the driver in the arm. A local radio station broadcast an interview with a witness who said the gunmen had fired in the air to scare away other people.
Police in Port Harcourt were reported as saying that the kidnappers had been in touch with Margaret's father, Michael Hill, a British oil industry consultant working for a Texan company, Lone Star, and his Nigerian-born wife, Tina. They own a share in a city nightclub, Goodfellas, which was closed last night.
Mr Hill has been in Nigeria for more than 10 years and is thought to be originally from Murton, Co Durham. A Foreign Office spokesman said: "We are providing consular support to the parents, and we are in urgent contact with the Nigerian authorities. We demand her immediate safe release."
Anabs Saraigbe, an influential chief of the ethnic Ijaw people, the dominant group in the region, told the Associated Press: "Taking an innocent child by force is a criminal act that should be roundly condemned by Nigerians ... Such dastardly acts can't take us anywhere and must stop."
Last month the Foreign Office warned all British nationals not to go to Port Harcourt or the surrounding core oil-producing region of Rivers, Delta and Bayelsa states. Kidnapping has been an increasingly dominant fact of life in Nigeria's oilfields in recent years, as insurgents try to force the government and oil companies to spend more revenues on the impoverished region.
However, abductions have increasingly been carried out by criminal gangs demanding ransoms, and in the past year the epidemic has spread to the residential areas of Port Harcourt.
Since the beginning of this year, 149 expatriates, including nine Britons, and 21 Nigerians have been abducted. Most have been released after payment of a ransom. Eighteen are still being held. Four foreigners and 20 Nigerians have been killed in the course of abductions.
The kidnapping of children is a much newer development. Margaret Hill is the third child to be seized in six weeks, and the first foreign child to be abducted. The daughter of a Nigerian businessman was kidnapped last month, and the three-year old son of a local politician was abducted from a classroom last week by three armed men. He was released four days later after the payment of a 13m naira (£51,500) ransom. Margaret was seized when her car was close to her school in the Government Reserve Area district near central Port Harcourt, after a two mile drive from her family's home in the north-west of the city.
"The targeting of people's families really changes the game," said one long-term expatriate resident of Port Harcourt. "A lot of people will start to reconsider whether it's worth being here." "It's a new departure, a horrible thing to happen," said another western worker, who did not want to give his name for fear of being targeted by rebels or criminals. "We hope it will get the government to do something. In the old days, under the dictatorship, they would send the army in. These days the government has to be a bit more careful."
The newly-elected president, Umaru Yar'Adua, is attempting to bring calm to the region through negotiations with local leaders. Margaret's kidnapping came a day after the main rebel group, Mend (Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta), declared the end of a month-long ceasefire, and the kidnapping of five workers from a Shell oil rig in Soku, elsewhere in Rivers state.
However, residents of Port Harcourt do not believe that Mend was behind the child abductions. "These are gangsters and extortionists who did this," one long-term resident said. "Perhaps the best people to stop them are the militants, because they have the contacts with the criminal world, and this is damaging their credibility."
The homes of most affluent Port Harcourt residents have heavy security precautions, including razor wire and gate guards, and abductions from vehicles have become the favoured method for kidnap gangs. The task is made easier by the city's frequently gridlocked traffic, compounded by the rainy season as heavy showers flood roads in the swampland region's oil capital.
Oil company workers live inside gated camps. Other expatriates and middle-class Nigerians observe a dawn-to-dusk curfew for fear of abductions and robberies. One Port Harcourt resident said that if he goes out in the evening, he arranges to stay in a hotel in the town centre. But such evening trips meant exposing local drivers to danger. "These people will generally not hurt a foreigner, but they won't think twice about killing a driver," he said.
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