4th child is kidnapped in Nigeria for ransom

Gunmen smashed a window and kidnapped a 3-year-old from his father's Mercedes SUV on Thursday, becoming the fourth case in Nigeria's oil-rich south.

The boy, Samuel, is the son of a prominent town chief - a troubling indication that the lucrative ransoms that gangs demand in exchange for kidnapped foreigners may be inspiring copycat abductions of the children of well-to-do Nigerian families.

"Four gunmen blocked the jeep. They smashed the windshield and took the boy away," said Azubuike Ihemeje, an aide to the boy's father, Eze Francis Amadi. "The chief is highly devastated."

He said the kidnappers demanded the equivalent of nearly US$400,000 (300,000 EUR), even providing an account number for the bank transfer, but eventually settled on 5 million naira (about US$40,000; 30,000 EUR) - "which they said should be paid immediately or the boy should be killed."

He did not confirm that the ransom had been paid and Samuel, seized on his way to nursery school, has not yet been returned. The driver of the SUV is being questioned, Rivers state police spokeswoman Irejua Barasua said.

Samuel was seized just two days after Nigeria's new police chief, Mike Okiro, announced a crackdown amid a surge of kidnappings in the Niger Delta.

More than 150 foreigners - including a 3-year-old British girl freed Sunday after four days in captivity - have been snatched so far this year, matching the total for all of last year. Samuel is among three Nigerian children kidnapped this year, with gangs now apparently targeting rich Nigerian families. The three others have been released.

Analysts say the prospect of large cash ransoms encourages the kidnappings, which first began when impoverished communities took oil workers hostage to protest pollution or failed development projects.

Gradually, more organized militant groups began to use the publicity generated by kidnapping foreigners to pressure the government for more political rights - and a greater share of oil revenues for their neglected region.

Several also have demanded payment in cash instead of development projects, though the oil firms that send foreign workers into Nigeria routinely deny that they rely on ransoms to obtain their employees' freedom.

Few suspects are arrested, encouraging gangs to think of hostages as easy cash, experts said.

"It's a bunch of criminal gangs cashing in on the cash-for-kidnap culture," said one security consultant who asked for anonymity due to restrictions on speaking to the press.

The captors of Margaret Hill - the daughter of a longtime British resident and his Nigeria-born wife - repeatedly threatened to kill her unless their demands for money were met, said her mother, Oluchi. They made no political demands.

Nigeria may be rated the country with the second-highest risk of kidnapping of foreign workers, but the risk to Nigerians traditionally has been much lower, said Richard MacNamee, a consultant at the risk management company ASI Global Response.

And though a handful of kidnap victims have been killed in the crossfire between security services and their captors, no Nigerian kidnappers are known to have seriously hurt their hostages, he noted.

"You have a long way to go before you get to somewhere like Colombia, where families regularly receive body parts in the post," he said.

However, Ihemeje said Thursday's kidnappers threatened to cut off Samuel's hands if the father reported the matter to the police.

Many workers in the Delta say the dangers of working in the oil-rich region now seem too great.

One foreigner married to a Nigerian woman said he was not letting his children out of a guarded compound for now.

"I'm keeping them under lock and key. It's like being in prison for them," said the parent, who asked for anonymity for fear of becoming a target.

He said he planned to close his company, leaving scores of Nigerian employees without a job, and leave the country with his family.