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Officials: 5 Indian sailors kidnapped from ship off the coast of Nigeria's oil-rich delta

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JOHANNESBURG - Gunmen stormed a tanker ship off the coast of Nigeria's oil-rich southern delta, ransacking the vessel and kidnapping five Indian sailors in the latest attack targeting foreign workers in the volatile region, a shipping company said Wednesday.

The attack targeted the SP Brussels tanker as it sat about 40 miles (64 kilometres) off the coast of Nigeria's Niger Delta, Medallion Marine said in a statement. The gunmen stole personal belongings on board the ship in the attack Monday and kidnapped the sailors, the company said.

Those remaining onboard later sailed the vessel safely to port in Lagos, Nigeria's commercial capital, the company said.

"Medallion Marine have been working in close co-operation with the authorities, and everything possible is being done to ensure the safe return of those crewmembers taken from the vessel," the statement read. "Nigerian naval vessels are assisting with this process."

Nigerian navy officials previously declined to comment about the attack, saying they had no information.

The attack on the tanker came the same day gunmen abducted four South Koreans and a Nigerian working for Hyundai Heavy Industries Co. at a construction site in the Brass area of Bayelsa state. A South Korean Foreign Ministry official has said the victims were preparing the site for workers who would construct factories there.

Typically, foreign companies operating in Nigeria's Niger Delta pay cash ransoms to free their employees after negotiating down kidnappers' demands. Foreign hostages can fetch hundreds of thousands of dollars apiece.

Foreign oil companies have pumped oil out of the Niger Delta, a region of mangroves and swamps the size of Portugal, for more than 50 years. Despite the billions of dollars flowing into Nigeria's government, many in the delta remain desperately poor, living in polluted waters without access to proper medical care, education or work. The poor conditions sparked an uprising in 2006 by militants and opportunistic criminals who blew up oil pipelines and kidnapped foreign workers.

That violence ebbed in 2009 with a government-sponsored amnesty program that offered ex-fighters monthly payments and job training. However, few in the delta have seen the promised benefits and sporadic kidnappings and attacks continue. The end of the year in Nigeria usually sees an uptick in criminal activity as well, as criminal gangs target the wealthy returning to the country to celebrate the holidays.

The last major kidnapping targeting foreign workers in the delta came when gunmen in October stormed ship belonging to Paris-based Bourbon SA and abducted six Russian sailors and an Estonian. The men were later released, though the company declined to say if it paid a ransom.

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Online:

Medallion Marine: www.medallionmarine.com

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Jon Gambrell can be reached at www.twitter.com/jongambrellAP.

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