23 Jun 2016

Govt rules out ransom for kidnapped NZer

9:19 pm on 23 June 2016

The government will not pay a ransom for a kidnapped New Zealander in Nigeria if it's asked for, Prime Minister John Key says.

14062016 Photo: RNZ/Rebekah Parsons-King. John Key talks about the effects of the Orlando shooting.

Prime Minister John Key said the motivation for the kidnapping was unclear. Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

Three Australians, one South African and two Nigerians were also abducted when up to 30 armed men attacked a convoy on the outskirts of the city of Calabar in the south of the country. A Nigerian driver was also shot dead.

All eight were employees of Perth company Macmahon Holdings, which has an annual $25 million contract with local cement works LafargeHolcim.

The New Zealander is a permanent resident of Australia, and has been named by local media as Jamal Khan.

Mr Key said the reason for the kidnapping was not yet clear.

"There was, as we understand it, one Nigerian killed as a result of the attack on the individuals - and obviously our sympathies go to the people of Nigeria.

"But, at this stage, there's been no communication between the potential kidnappers and their family or anyone involved in the government."

The government had a strong policy to not pay ransom.

"And the reason for that is: we think, if we pay the ransom, we potentially put a bounty on the head of any New Zealander who travels to any dangerous part of the world.

"And it potentially makes the situation worse, so in the case of the New Zealand government, no, we wouldn't pay it."

It was not unusual in Nigeria for the motivation for abductions to involve money, but the New Zealand government would not pay any ransom, Mr Key said.

Macmahon Holdings confirmed in a statement the number and nationalities of the employees caught up in the attack.

It was working with security agencies to ensure the safe return of all the surviving victims, and was communicating with their families, it said.

The kidnapping happened on the outskirts of Calabar.

The kidnapping happened on the outskirts of Calabar. Photo: GOOGLE MAPS

The kidnappers escaped by boat from the river bridge where they ambushed the convoy, and the state commissioner of police said his officers were working with the Nigerian Navy to track down and free the victims.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade said it was in contact with the kidnapped New Zealander's next of kin and was seeking further information on the situation.

The ministry was also in contact with Australian authorities and the mining company.

A relative of one of the Australian kidnap victims, Tracy Zoutenbier, said the family was concerned that the kidnappers had already killed a driver in the convoy they ambushed.

She said deaths usually did not occur in Nigerian kidnappings for ransom, so the initial level of violence was a "real concern".

Mrs Zoutenbier said the family of her kidnapped brother-in-law, Peter Zoutenbier, were shocked at the news.

'Well organised' kidnapping

Kidnapping for ransom has been a long-standing problem in southern Nigeria, particularly in the oil-producing delta region, where criminal gangs target wealthy Nigerians and expatriate workers. Most are usually released after the payment of a ransom.

New Zealand oil worker Bruce Klenner was taken hostage at gunpoint in Niger Delta in 2007 and held for a week before being released

He told Checkpoint he was released after English negotiators were called in, and a leader of the criminal group that kidnapped him was released from prison.

"They didn't harm us as such but there was a few scary moments there. I guess I just turned myself off, I suppose, to a certain degree.

"You never really slept properly. We just had to sleep on the timber floor, basically."

Mr Klenner said he hoped the men kidnapped in this latest attack stayed level-headed, as the most important thing for them to do was to remain calm.

Militant group Boko Haram, which operates in the north-east of the country, was thought unlikely to be responsible for the attack, as it happened in the south.

"It is more likely to be a criminal gang that have taken these people to elicit some sort of ransom from the company," ABC Africa correspondent Martin Cuddihy said.

He said kidnapping was not uncommon in this region.

"This is a very wealthy part of Nigeria, but given the fact that the oil price has dropped considerably in the last couple of years, these criminal gangs have taken to abducting more foreign nationals in an effort to raise some money," he said.

"There simply hasn't been the same amount of wealth pouring into that part of the country as there has been in recent years."

- RNZ / Reuters / ABC