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Vessel Seized by Gunmen in Niger Delta

Gunmen captured an oil firm vessel and its crew in a weekend raid off the shores of Nigeria's volatile southern Niger Delta region

Gunmen captured an oil firm vessel and its crew in a weekend raid off the shores of Nigeria's volatile southern Niger Delta region, an army spokesman announced Monday.

"Militants suspected to be from Tompolo's camp seized one MV Thou Galaxy vessel on the Gbaramatu waterway along Escravos (River)," Lieutenant-Colonel Rabe Abubakar, the military spokesman in the region, told AFP.

Government "Tompolo" Ekpemupolo is a powerful militant leader in Delta state notorious for extorting money from vessels on the Escravos River and for stealing oil on a large scale.

Several people had been on board at the time of the raid but their nationalities were not immediately available, Abubakar added.

"It happened yesterday (Sunday) around 10:25 in the morning. The ship was on its way from Singapore to Warri seaport conveying equipment meant for a Chevron project," he said.

Negotiations were underway between the vessel's owners and relevant government agencies to secure the release of the vessel and its crew, said Abubakar.

The hijacking might have been a reaction by the militants to Saturday's arrest by the military of 22 Filipinos found in possession of the 12,500 metric tonnes of crude believed to have been stolen, he added.

Nigeria is among Africa's top oil producers, exporting some two million barrels of crude per day, but the industry is prey to organised gangs of heavily-armed criminals who tap pipelines and siphon off tonnes of crude.

In a separate incident, Anglo-Dutch oil giant Shell on Monday announced the death of six of its contract workers in a pipeline explosion in the southwest of the country late last week.

"Yes, there was an explosion. Unfortunately six contract staff lost their lives, most regretable," Shell spokesman Precious Okolobo told AFP.

He said the casualties, who were repairing a pipeline leak at the time of the accident, were all Nigerians.

"A full investigation has been launched," on the causes of the Thursday night accident on the Amukpe Rapele trunkline in the Niger Delta.

Oil pipelines, facilities and oil company staff operating in the restive Niger Delta have been targets of violent attacks by militants in the past three years.

The attacks have led to huge production losses.

On Friday Shell said it had contained a spill caused by sabotage on its Adibawa delivery line in the southern Bayelsa state.

Nigeria's total production currently stands at around two million barrels a day against 2.6 million barrels in 2006.