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PORT HARCOURT, Nigeria (Reuters) - The Nigerian army has arrested a militant gang leader and more than 50 of his followers believed to be behind the kidnapping of 19 people in the oil-producing Niger Delta, a spokesman said on Saturday.
The hostages, two Americans, two Frenchmen, two Indonesians, one Canadian and 12 Nigerians, were freed late on Wednesday after being held by a gang leader known as Obese at a camp in Rivers state.
"We have arrested Obese and some of his boys, more than 50 of them," Timothy Antigha, a spokesman for the military taskforce which polices the Niger Delta, told Reuters. He would not elaborate, pending a statement to be issued later.
A security source said Obese had been detained with 51 of his followers after a shootout near Bonny in Rivers.
"The military has him and 51 of his boys and is presently transferring the criminals to Port Harcourt in military-escorted gunboats," said the source, who asked not to be named.
The armed forces have said they have taken over several militant camps in the Niger Delta, the heartland of Africa's biggest oil and gas industry, and that they will carry out more raids to flush out gang members.
Unrest in the Niger Delta risks undermining the credibility of President Goodluck Jonathan in the run-up to elections next April. Jonathan is the first head of state from the oil region and brokered an amnesty with militants last year.
Key field commanders of the main militant group, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), accepted the amnesty. At least two, Farah Dagogo and Boyloaf, were instrumental in negotiating the release of the 19 hostages.
But the militants were always factionalised and new leaders have started to emerge, including Obese, a former Dagogo gang member. The military wants to ensure such figures cannot gain a foothold by re-establishing camps in the creeks.
Previous campaigns by MEND fighters have knocked out a significant chunk of Nigeria's oil production, currently averaging around 2.2 million barrels per day (bpd), and cost it as much as $1 billion a month in lost revenues.
MEND has threatened further attacks but security experts believe a repeat of such a devastating level of unrest is unlikely at this stage, the amnesty and the arrest of several key militant leaders having damaged the group.
It remains impossible to guard oil facilities fully against sabotage and piracy.
Shell declared force majeure on its Bonny Light oil exports on Friday after a pipeline was damaged, freeing it from shipment obligations, though there was no immediate evidence of links to militant activity.
Oil infrastructure in the delta, a network of thousands of shallow creeks opening into the Gulf of Guinea, is extremely exposed with thousands of kilometres (miles) of pipeline passing through remote and thickly forested terrain.
Disputes between local communities and oil firms are common, and attacking a pipeline and shutting down production requires little more than simple home-made explosives.
It is also extremely difficult to protect offshore platforms such as those operated by Exxon Mobil and Afren, from where 15 of the 19 hostages were kidnapped.
The militants use open craft too small to be detected by radar for such raids and are even able to operate far offshore by using a "mother ship", a larger vessel which supplies the speedboats with fuel and food, security experts say.