Nigerian pirates demand $1.3m for release of hostages

Lebanese and Egyptian crew members among eight people held after ship hijacking

A machine gun is seen on a sandbag on a boat off the Atlantic coast in Nigeria's Bayelsa state December 19, 2013. Nigeria's navy has installed eight automated, camera-equipped surveillance towers in the waters just off its coast, in an effort to tackle a surge in pirate attacks and crude oil theft that have blighted Africa's top energy producer this year. Pirate attacks off Nigeria have jumped by a third this year as ships passing through West Africa's Gulf of Guinea, a major commodities route, have come under threat from gangs seeking to snatch cargoes or hold crews for ransom. Picture taken December 19, 2013. REUTERS/Stringer (NIGERIA - Tags: MILITARY POLITICS MARITIME)
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Nigerian pirates are demanding a ransom of more than $1 million in exchange for the release of eight hostages held in the Gulf of Guinea.

The Milano 1 cargo ship was hijacked last Thursday morning. Ten crew members were on board.

The vessel, registered in St Kitts but operated by a Lebanese firm, had been contracted by a Nigerian company to transport glass between Nigeria and Cameroon.

The ship was soon released, but only two crew members were freed. Three Lebanese, one of them the ship’s captain, and two Egyptians are among the eight hostages left.

Hijackers initially demanded a sum of 800 million Naira – more than $2m – but have since been negotiated down to 500 million naira, approximately $1.3 million.

Lebanon's Ambassador to Nigeria, Houssam Diab told The National that the hostage takers were now in direct contact and negotiating with the businessman who had hired the ship.

“This was not a kidnapping with the intention to kill, it was with the intention of getting a ransom."

He added that “authorities are unsure if they are still being held at sea or ashore”.

Ahmad Al Kut, the ship's Lebanese owner, told Al Watan newspaper that he had received a number of untraceable calls from the pirates to open negotiations.

He claimed to have offered to sell the ship to meet the ransom demand.

“Let the Lebanese state buy my ship and pay the ransom for the three Lebanese sailors, and I do not want a penny, nor do I want to recover my ship,” he said.

A group known as the Reformed Niger Delta Avengers are believed to be behind the act of piracy.

The National understands that the hostages are in good health and were able to speak directly with the company owner in recent days.

Kidnapping in Nigeria is a growing phenomenon, with most incidents being resolved following the payment of a ransom. Last week, three Greek sailors were taken hostage from a ship in the same area. More than 126 people have been kidnapped in 26 incidents in the Gulf of Guinea this year.