WARRI, Nigeria – A woman originally from Montana is among four members of a Seattle-based film crew detained along with a Nigerian man for illegally traveling by boat in restive southern Nigeria, officials said.
Security forces fighting militants in the Niger Delta consider much of the vast wetland region a military zone and have barred outsiders from traveling there without express consent by authorities.
Nigerian Brig. Gen. Wuyep Rintip said the group was seized Saturday for flouting the ban and were to be flown to the capital, Abuja. He did not identify the detainees. A US Embassy spokesman had no immediate comment on Monday.
According to a news release issue issued Sunday in Seattle, the Americans were Sandi Cioffi, director of the documentary “Sweet Crude;” Tammi Sims, Cliff Worsham and Sean Porter, also part of the crew, and Joel Bisina, a peace mediator and founder of Niger Delta Professionals for Development in Warri.
Sims, 34, the former Tammi Pimley, is a native of Joplin, Mont., and graduated from Montana State University, her brother Adam Pimley said.
The Americans “entered the country legally on April 5th, having notified authorities about their intentions to film and to make a visit to a library they had helped build,” the independent film-making company said in the release.
A lawyer was retained for the group but has been denied contact with them as well as information on charges, and there has been no contact with the group since Saturday, according to the release.
The offices of Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., and Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., are assisting, Adam Pimley said.
“It is something that Jon’s staff is burning the midnight oil on since getting the call Saturday evening,” said Aaron Murphy, a spokesman for Tester. “Jon’s primary concern is for the safety and well-being of these folks. Jon is upset because based on visa records it appears that Tammi and her colleagues were doing everything by the book.”
Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., added that his thoughts and prayers were with the film crew and their families.
“My staff has been working with the U.S. and Nigerian governments along with Sen. Tester’s office to bring these folks home safely and as quickly as possible,” he said.
Gov. Brian Schweitzer said he was told by U.S. officials that it appeared to be a misunderstanding and could be taken care of soon.
“The problem is, in that part of the world, what does soon mean? It could be weeks,” Schweitzer said.
The governor said he was told the Americans were being treated “OK.”
Schweitzer said he has also placed calls to the Nigerian government, but so far has not received a response.
“We will continue to put on the pressure,” he said.
Various foreigners have been picked up in the Niger Delta in recent months as security forces have stepped up efforts to quell unrest in the region.
Several foreigners, including two documentary filmmakers, were expelled from the country on alleged visa violations. An American aid worker, long a resident in Nigeria, was arrested with those filmmakers and was charged with spying. The charges were later dropped and she was released.
Nigeria, Africa’s biggest oil producer, pumps its crude from the Niger Delta, which remains deeply impoverished despite the natural bounty. Armed groups roam the region of creeks and swamps, stealing crude oil for resale and engaging in other criminal activities.
Some gunmen also launch militant attacks seeking to pressure the government to release their leaders and send more government-controlled oil revenues to the anarchic area. Their attacks have trimmed nearly one quarter of Nigeria’s daily crude output, helping to send oil prices soaring to historic highs in global markets.
The government considers all the gunmen criminals.
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