The death of David Hunt emphasises the dangers faced by oil workers - hundreds of them from Teesside - in volatile Nigeria. Lindsay Jennings looks at what's behind the violence.

BARRICADED into the oil rig's accommodation quarter, Paul Nellist trembled in fear as he heard the sounds of the jungle tribesmen trying to smash their way in. The leader of the 50-strong gang of natives, who were armed with machetes and knives, had just announced he was going to kill them all.

Paul, who used to live in Middlesbrough, and another 16 Westerners, had been trapped on the Trident 8 rig, three miles off the coast of Nigeria, for four days.

"A witch doctor was performing a ritual on board the rig, which we were told was a kind of war dance," Paul later recalled. "The natives were becoming frenzied and we thought it was just a matter of time before they battered their way through to get to us.

"We armed ourselves with spanners, bolts - anything we could get hold of."

To the immense relief of the workers, the siege ended not long after the rig was stripped of all its tools and clothes. Fortunately, no one was injured. But while that incident took place in August 2001, it was merely a precursor of what was to follow in the form of kidnappings and beatings of oil workers in Nigeria.

Nigeria is Africa's leading oil exporter, producing about 2.5 million barrels a day. Kidnappings of foreign workers have become increasingly frequent, particularly in the Niger Delta region, and militant attacks have cut production by more than 20 per cent since the start of the year.

The militants, under the umbrella group Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (Mend) say that local people have not benefited from the region's oil, which has instead been used to develop other parts of Nigeria, or has been stolen by the country's leaders. Many Nigerian people live in poverty despite the black gold beneath their feet.

Some groups have complained about the environmental damage caused by oil companies. But much of the violence is believed to be purely criminal, with armed pirates stealing oil to sell on the black market - the oil is often sold to eastern Europe in return for weapons - and kidnapping Westerners to demand ransoms from oil firms. Some 20 British nationals have been seized in eight separate incidents this year alone.

Earlier this month, Briton Martin Maddieson, 44, was kidnapped from a boat off the Nigerian coast, along with an American colleague, Jim Brazel.

Maddieson, who lives in Norfolk, and Brazel were taken hostage from the vessel HD Commander while it was anchored near the Funiwa Platform just after midnight on November 2. They were released five days later in good health and unharmed.

It came only weeks after four Britons were kidnapped with a group of up to seven foreigners from a residential compound close to Ekit, in Akwa Ibom state. They were beaten with sticks, slapped with machetes, and told they were going to be killed, before eventually being freed.

Their kidnapping prompted union leaders to warn British oil workers not to go to Nigeria because their safety could not be guaranteed and they feared it was only a matter of time before a hostage was killed.

Yesterday, their fears were realised when it was confirmed that David Hunt, 58, a grandfather from Middlesbrough, had been killed in a shoot-out during a botched rescue attempt of seven hostages. Mr Hunt, a production superintendent, had worked abroad for years, in countries such as Libya, Syria and Italy, before heading out to Nigeria.

The dangers in the country were only too apparent when welder Stephen Cook, 47, travelled to the country in 2001 to work at a plant which supplied gas. Mr Cook, formerly from Middlesbrough and now living in Canada, was in a group of 12 from Britain who were flown to Lagos to work on Bonnie Island, off the coast of Nigeria.

He recalls being warned not to speak to or communicate with any of the locals, who had descended on the group the moment they had landed.

"Armed guards met us from the plane and escorted us to the coach and from then on, we had armed guards with us," he says.

"We knew then that it was dangerous. We weren't briefed about any security risks or threats, or what to do if anything like that happened. We were warned not to wander outside the gates of the hotel complex, unless accompanied by armed guard, and there was just a huge atmosphere of threat. Behind the gates we felt secure, but beyond them, we knew there was a threat."

In one of the hotels, Mr Cook can recall coming across 18 oil rig workers from Newcastle who were waiting for an emergency flight home. The men had been threatened that if they didn't leave their rig within a few hours, they would be shot or drowned.

"The threat was taken very seriously by their employers, who got a helicopter to fly them off the rig," he says. "I've heard lots of stories about oil rig workers being threatened out there and I wouldn't go back, especially on a rig. My life's worth more than my job."

Sid Henwood, 49, of Stockton, also worked in Nigeria in 2001 in an oil rig yard just off the coast. "There was talk of all the boats being attacked by pirates," says Mr Henwood, who now works in London. "But nobody had told us about that side of it before we went. It was all about what inoculations you needed. It was certainly an eye opener with armed guards everywhere. I wouldn't go back to that sort of Third World country again."

But many workers do go back to Nigeria, attracted by the money, the weather - which is warmer than working in the North Sea - and the shift patterns. An oil worker in Nigeria will work an average four weeks on and four weeks off, compared with a fortnight on and fortnight off on the North Sea rigs.

Despite the attractions, however, unions are still warning workers to stay away from places such as Nigeria.

Jake Malloy, general secretary, of the Oil Industry Liaison Committee says: "Some of the barges in the Delta region are far more likely to be subject to some kind of attack by pirates or hostage taking situation. It's virtually a day-to-day occurrence.

'The oil companies try to do the best they can - the workers live inside camps or flats with security guards, concrete walls and electric fences - but clearly it's not enough, which is why we simply tell our guys: don't go."

But there are hundreds of workers from the North-East on the oil rigs in Nigeria who have been forced to go abroad following the demise of the mining and steel industries. It is not just the promise of money or better shift patterns, it is also the promise of regular work.

Following Mr Hunt's death, the risks are all too clear. Yesterday, the Foreign Office said expatriates were now frequently taken hostage by armed militants and that it believed armed groups were planning further attacks on oil and gas facilities in Niger Delta. There are fears that there will be an increase in violence in the run up to next year's elections.

"A lot of the time it's just put to the back of the mind and you can't stop these guys going there. What you can do is offer advice to them," says Mr Malloy.

"But once you've had an AK47 blasting holes in the wall above your head, it makes you think again."