Story Highlights• Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta holding 24 Filipino hostages
• MEND plans to launch "Operation Black Locust" against key oil installations
• MEND: "Our fight is against everybody" over distribution of oil profits
From Jeff Koinange
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WARRI, Nigeria (CNN) -- In the remote mangrove swamps of southern Nigeria, 24 Filipino hostages appeared frightened and disheveled. Around them, dozens of militants, dressed in black and wearing black ski masks, danced wildly and fired their automatic weapons into the air.
The hostages, held in captivity since their cargo ship was seized January 20, sat on white plastic chairs, lined up in a row, not knowing if they would live or die. Some militants pointed weapons at them; others proudly brandished rocket-propelled grenades.
The Filipinos are the latest victims caught in the middle of a widening battle over Nigeria's oil profits. (Watch as CNN's Koinange journeys into menace, where rebels dance with weapons)
"We're all OK, but only we want to be free. We want to be released," said Ruben Roble, the Filipino captain of the Baco Liner II.
Elmer Nacionales, the cargo ship's chief officer, added, "I have a family and we need to communicate with them."
CNN was recently taken to the hostages and one of the militant hideouts in the Niger Delta. It was an exclusive glimpse of a militant group that calls itself the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, or MEND, which has ratcheted up its battle for what it says is the unequal distribution of the nation's oil wealth. (Gallery: Militants take CNN crew into their hideout)
Nigeria is Africa's largest oil producer. In 2005, it was the world's sixth largest exporter of oil, but the conflict there has cut distribution by an estimated 500,000 barrels per day, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.
The militants are threatening to hurt the oil sector even more.
"We are going to descend on all foreign interests in the Nigerian economy, either in the river or in the land," said a masked man who called himself Maj. Gen. Tamuno. He said he was the group's leader.
He gave the interview from the murky swamps where the militants have taken up arms, and said his group would soon launch "Operation Black Locust," aimed at key installations across the country. His militants claimed to have 200,000 fighters among them. (Read Jeff Koinange's exclusive on going into an area where few outsiders have ever been)
"We are telling all expatriates to leave Nigeria, not only the Niger Delta, but to leave Nigeria. We will take lives, we will destroy lives, we will crumble the economy," he said.
Since late 2005, MEND militants have carried out numerous attacks on Nigeria's oil sector and abducted dozens of foreign workers, releasing nearly all of them unharmed.
But in recent months, the attacks have become more brazen and more frequent. Two car bombings were carried out at oil company compounds in southern Nigeria's largest port town of Port Harcourt on December 18, and in January alone, militants abducted more than 30 people.
"The security situation in the Niger Delta region has deteriorated significantly over the past year. Travel to the region remains dangerous and should be avoided," the U.S. State Department said in its "travel warning" on Nigeria last month.
"Hostages haven been taken from oil facilities, public roadways, and within the city of Port Harcourt."
'Struggle for liberation'
The man who identified himself as MEND's leader said his group is fighting because of billions of dollars being made off the oil rich deposits of the Niger Delta, with very little of the profits making it back to the Nigerian people, especially those in the Delta where some of the world's poorest people live.
More than 2 million barrels of crude oil is pumped out of Nigeria every day, according to the U.S. Energy Department. International oil conglomerates from the United States, China and other countries have taken up stakes in the Niger Delta. Among the oil giants are Shell, ExxonMobil, ChevronTexaco, and oil service companies like Schlumberger and Brazil's Petrobas. (Interactive: See where the Niger Delta is located)
The masked man said his forces are in the middle of a "struggle for the liberation of the Niger Delta, the most devastated and the most threatened region in the world."
"Our fight is against everybody," he said.
Nigerian forces have struggled in the battle. The navy doesn't travel to the regions where CNN went because the waters are so dangerous, patrolled by armed militants in speed boats that quickly navigate through the swamps.
One person who is working to try to bring an end to the crisis is American-born Judith Burdin Asuni. She works for a nongovernmental organization called Academic Associates Peaceworks, which specializes in conflict resolution.
She says everyone bears the blame for what's happening in the Delta.
"The government, the oil companies and even the militants all share the blame," she told CNN. "The situation shouldn't have been allowed to deteriorate to this level."
And she said the militants should be taken extremely seriously.
"The militants are far more well armed than the Nigerian navy. They have bigger guns and speed boats that can practically go anywhere, even shallow waters," she said.
A week ago, the militants sailed into Port Harcourt and boldly made their way to the central police station in the middle of the town and shot their way out, rescuing 15 of their comrades who had been arrested by the navy.
"That's how bold they've become," Asuni said. "They rule the roost."
Former Nigerian military ruler and retired four-star general, Ibrahim Babangida, said the country's leaders must do something soon to try to bring about an end to the crisis.
"The window is closing fast," he said. "The Niger Delta crisis is solvable but our leaders have to act fast. I know the Delta, I spent some time there. Those militants can only wait so long."
After CNN ran this report Frank Nweke Jr., the Nigerian Minister of Information and Communications, blasted the piece by saying it "utterly disregards the most elementary principle of journalism because no government official was interviewed."
He said it "sends the wrong signals to the international community about the state of affairs in the country, create unnecessary panic, foster the feeling of insecurity, advance an out-dated thesis of neglect of the Niger Delta and portray Nigeria as a country in perpetual crises. It also glorifies criminality and undermines global efforts at eliminating terrorism."
CNN responded by saying, "We can tell you that CNN did make a considerable effort to obtain comment on the story from both the Nigerian navy and the Nigerian president's office. No one from the government was made available to CNN."