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French firm: 7 sailors kidnapped off Nigeria coast

LAGOS, Nigeria -- Gunmen attacked a ship operated by a French oil and gas services company off the coast of Nigeria's oil-rich southern delta, kidnapping six Russian sailors and an Estonian in the assault, the firm said Wednesday.

Paris-based Bourbon SA offered only a tersely worded statement on its website about the attack Monday near the Niger Delta, where the company works closely with oil companies like Chinese-owned Addax Petroleum. Gunmen apparently attacked the Bourbon Liberty 249 and seized the sailors before escaping, the company said.

Another nine sailors onboard the vessel sailed safely away to the company's port in Onne in Nigeria's Rivers state, the company said.

"The emergency unit set up immediately by Bourbon has been set up to aim at their rapid liberation under the safest security conditions," the company said in its statement. A company spokesman reached in Paris declined to elaborate on the company's statement and did not say where the kidnapping actually took place.

Late Wednesday, military spokesman Lt. Col. Onyema Nwachukwu said the attack happened near the Pennington River off Bayelsa state. That's close to the Pennington Export Terminal run by U.S.-based Chevron Corp., which loads crude onto large oil tankers for export to the West.

"Forward operational bases of the (military) have been directed by the commander to comb the entire area and track down the perpetrators," Nwachukwu said.

The Bourbon Liberty 249 is an anchor handling ship, a type of vessel designed to supply oil rigs and tow them to a drilling site.

Foreign oil companies have pumped oil out of the Niger Delta, a region of mangroves and swamps the size of Portugal, for more than 50 years. Despite the billions of dollars flowing into Nigeria's government, many in the delta remain desperately poor, living in polluted waters without access to proper medical care, education or work. The poor conditions sparked an uprising in 2006 by militants and opportunistic criminals who blew up oil pipelines and kidnapped foreign workers.

That violence ebbed in 2009 with a government-sponsored amnesty program that offered ex-fighters monthly payments and job training. However, few in the delta have seen the promised benefits and sporadic kidnappings and attacks continue. The last major kidnapping happened in August, when gunmen attacked a vessel operated by Sea Trucks Group, another oil and gas contractor, and abducted four workers. The workers were later released unharmed.

While kidnappings in the delta routinely involve violence, most hostages are released a few weeks later after their employers pay a ransom.

Bourbon operates support vessels for offshore oil rigs and provides repair, inspection and maintenance services for undersea oil fields, and has a smaller unit that ships commodities like coal, grain and timber worldwide. The company had revenues of 1 billion euros ($1.3 billion) last year.

The company has been targeted by kidnappers in Nigeria before. In October 2008, pirates near Cameroon's border with Nigeria kidnapped 10 Bourbon workers, all of whom were later released. Pirates also kidnapped and later released nine Bourbon workers seized off Nigeria's coast in January 2009.

In the most recent attack on Bourbon, attackers armed with Kalashnikov assault rifles clashed with Nigerian navy forces in a failed bid to take over an offshore oil platform, then kidnapped three French employees of Bourbon in September 2010. The workers were later released.

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Associated Press writer Greg Keller in Paris contributed to this report.

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Jon Gambrell can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/jongambrellAP .