A COUNTY Durham oil worker was last night facing an agonising wait for news after his three-year-old daughter became the first foreign child to be kidnapped in southern Nigeria.

Margaret Hill, whose father, Mike, is from Murton, was snatched by an armed gang as she travelled to school by car in Port Harcourt, in the south of the West African country.

Despite two other child kidnappings in the Niger Delta recently, the seizure of Margaret is the first known recent kidnapping of a foreign child.

The kidnappers smashed a window while the car was stationary in heavy traffic, in the exclusive Government Reserve Area residential district, and grabbed the toddler.

Last night, it was still not known who had taken Margaret, but the British High Commission said that kidnappings were usually the work of criminal gangs.

Neither Mr Hill nor his Nigerian wife were believed to be in the car when it was attacked by seven men at 7.30am yesterday. The vehicle's driver was reportedly stabbed in the arm.

A witness claimed that the kidnappers fired guns into the air to scare away bystanders.

Reports have suggested the gang has made contact with Margaret's father, who has lived in Nigeria for ten years, to tell him his daughter is safe.

Mr Hill is believed to be working as the operations director for Nigerian-based US drilling firm Lonestar.

He also runs a bar in Port Harcourt called Goodfellas, where two Britons were among five foreign oil workers kidnapped in a shootout last August.

Kidnappings of foreign oil workers have become an almost weekly occurrence in the south of Nigeria, with 150 this year, but snatching women or children was rare until recent months.

The High Commission said the fact that such a young child was involved in yesterday's kidnapping signalled a worsening of the situation.

It comes just over a week after the son of a local politician was taken from his school by armed men and released after a ransom of more than £50,000 was paid.

Another child is also known to have been snatched and later released in the past two months.

The Foreign Office and the High Commission, which are providing assistance to Mr and Mrs Hill, both called for the immediate safe release of Margaret.

A Foreign Office spokeswoman said: "We do not know who took her. We are in contact with her parents and are providing assistance."

A High Commission spokesman said: "High Commission officials are in contact with the Nigerian authorities at federal and state levels, and we are calling for her immediate release."

More than a dozen foreigners are still in captivity in Nigeria, and more than 200 have been taken since the start of last year.

Hostages are usually released unharmed if a ransom is paid.

One of the biggest oil producers in the country is Shell.

A spokesman said that, as far as he knew, the kidnapped girl was not related to any of the firm's employees.

But he added that Lonestar was a drilling company used as a contractor by many larger international firms, including Shell.

Foreign Office advice warns against all travel to the Niger Delta because of the very high risk of kidnapping, armed robbery and other armed attacks.

Margaret's abduction brings the total number of expatriates kidnapped in the Niger Delta this year to 150. Twenty were British.

Kidnappings began as the work of political groups, but have been taken up by criminal gangs for money.

Sid Henwood, 49, from Stockton, worked in Nigeria, at an offshore oil rig yard, in 2001, and last night said he would never go back. He said: "Snatching that little girl is unbelievable, but I would not put it past them - the experience I had out there, some of the things I saw.

"I was only out there two weeks, but it was not a nice experience; and I felt uncomfortable all the time I was out there.

"As soon as we got off the plane we had an armed guard. I had never known anything like it. You had to have an armed guard to get between the airport and the hotel. It is a Third World country where bribery and corruption is just rife."

David Hunt, 58, a grandfather from Teesside, died during a botched rescue attempt by the Nigerian Navy after he and six other foreign oil workers were taken last year.

In May this year, Hartlepool-born oil worker David Flounders was kidnapped by militants who stormed his ship. He was eventually freed unharmed.

Mr Flounders, 56, said he feared he would die.