Russian sailors held in Nigeria to be handed over to Russian embaccy

Twelve Russian sailors held in Nigeria for nearly two years on charges of stealing crude oil are expected be handed over to their embassy on Monday, a Russian Embassy official said.

In a written order on Aug. 4, Judge Roseline Ukeje of the federal high court in Lagos, had said the Russians, all crewmen of a Greek-owned ship MT African Pride found laden with suspected stolen oil off Nigeria's coast, would be handed over to their embassies rather than jailed as their trial proceeded.

The embassy spokesman said the court hearing to formalize the release had begun Monday morning. He offered no details.

As a condition of release, the judge had required the embassy to give written guarantees the sailors will continue to attend their trial.

Delays in their case since they were arrested in October 2003 have strained diplomatic relations between Russia and Nigeria.

Prosecutors allege their ship was found carrying 11.3 metric tons of crude oil stolen from pipelines in Nigeria's southern oil region.

The sailors, who have pleaded not guilty, face life jail if convicted.

Their next hearing has been set for Oct. 21 in Lagos.

Nigeria, Africa's leading oil producer, has for years been a target of highly organized criminal gangs that siphon oil from pipelines in the Niger Delta for sale to vessels waiting offshore.

The government estimates this stolen oil may account for up to 10 percent of the country's exports of 2.5 million barrels daily.

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