Story Highlights• NEW: 24 Filippino hostages kidnapped in Niger Delta released, employer says
• Minister: CNN paid for, staged gunmen holding hostages in Niger Delta
• "It was a paid job," Nigeria's Frank Nweke said, without offering evidence
• CNN and CNN's Africa correspondent Jeff Koinange flatly denied the charge
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ABUJA, Nigeria (CNN) -- A group of 24 Filipino hostages kidnapped more than three weeks ago have been freed, a spokesman for Baco-Liner, their employer, said Tuesday.
According to the spokesman, all the men are in good health and were headed for Warri, Nigeria, their original destination before being abducted from a Baco-Liner cargo ship on January 20.
The Nigerian government was contacted regarding their release, but did not have an immediate response.
The men were released a day after a Nigerian government spokesman accused CNN of paying for and staging a report that showed the hostages being held by masked gunmen in the remote mangrove swamps of southern Nigeria.
"We have evidence that some of these people were actually paid to put up a show," Nigerian Minister of Information Frank Nweke Jr. told CNN International about last week's report by Jeff Koinange, CNN's Africa correspondent. (Watch Jeff Koinange's report)
"It was a paid job, and that's exactly why we are very upset about it," he said, without offering evidence.
"He had actually approached other people before then to do the same thing and his offer was declined. And he shopped around for more people and found those criminals who were willing to play ball with him and they put on the kind of show that they put up and which was shown around the world."
CNN and Koinange flatly denied the charge. In a written statement, CNN said it did not pay for any part of the report, nor does the network pay for interviews.
The report showed the hostages, held captive since their cargo ship was seized January 20, seated on white plastic chairs, lined up in a row.
As dozens of militants, dressed in black and wearing black ski masks, danced and fired automatic weapons into the air, the hostages appeared immobilized by fear.
"The government is trying to get them released," Nweke said. "But to make a show out of it in the way that your reporter did is unacceptable and, to our minds, undermines global efforts in the war on terror."
Nweke said he and his entourage had recently traveled through the Niger Delta and had seen projects intended to help the area's residents, such as health clinics and the construction of bridges, but witnessed none of the scenes shown in the report.
"You can imagine my surprise when I saw the kind of pictures that were put out on CNN portraying the situation of war and crisis in the Niger Delta," he said. "There was absolutely no correlation whatsoever with what we had on the ground and what CNN International put out there."
In denying the information minister's allegations, the network said that the only money that changed hands was the standard rental for a motorboat and captain -- about $700 -- and the standard fee to an area freelance journalist for his help in reporting and translation, about $150 per day for three days.
CNN said it will send a letter to Nweke asking him to provide any evidence to support his claims. If any credible evidence is forthcoming, CNN said it would report on that.
CNN crew goes to hideout in Niger Delta swamp
Members of the militant group, who said they were part of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, or MEND, led CNN's crew to their hideout in a swamp in the Niger Delta. MEND has recently ratcheted up its battle to redress what it says is the unequal distribution of the nation's oil wealth.
Nigeria is Africa's largest oil producer. In 2005, it was the world's sixth-largest exporter of oil, but the conflict there has cut distribution by an estimated 500,000 barrels per day, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.
The militants are threatening to hurt the oil sector even more.
"We are going to descend on all foreign interests in the Nigerian economy, either in the river or in the land," Maj. Gen. Tamuno God's Will, the group's self-described leader, told CNN.
He said his group -- which claims 200,000 fighters -- will soon launch "Operation Black Locust," aimed at key installations across the country.
"We are telling all expatriates to leave Nigeria, not only the Niger Delta, but to leave Nigeria. We will take lives, we will destroy lives, we will crumble the economy," he said.
Since late 2005, MEND militants have carried out numerous attacks on Nigeria's oil sector and abducted dozens of foreign workers, releasing nearly all of them unharmed.
But in recent months, the attacks have become more brazen and more frequent. Two car bombings were carried out at oil company compounds in southern Nigeria's largest port town of Port Harcourt on December 18, and in January alone, militants abducted more than 30 people.
"The security situation in the Niger Delta region has deteriorated significantly over the past year," the U.S. State Department said last month in a travel warning. "Travel to the region remains dangerous and should be avoided."
Militants want share of oil profits to go to locals
General God's Will said his group is fighting because few of the billions of dollars being made off the oil-rich deposits of the Niger Delta make it back to the Nigerian people, especially those in the Delta, home to some of the world's poorest people.
More than 2 million barrels of crude oil is pumped out of Nigeria every day, according to the U.S. Energy Department. International oil giants including Shell, ExxonMobil, ChevronTexaco, and oil service companies such as Schlumberger and Brazil's Petrobas have taken up residence in the Niger Delta.
The militant leader said his forces are in the middle of a "struggle for the liberation of the Niger Delta, the most devastated and the most threatened region in the world."
"Our fight is against everybody," he said.
Nigerian forces have struggled in the battle. The navy doesn't travel to the regions where CNN went because the waters are so dangerous, patrolled by armed militants in speed boats that quickly navigate through the shallow swamps, Koinange said.
But Nweke said the government of President Olusegun Obasanjo has made progress in the delta over the past seven years, building hundreds of classrooms and health centers and undertaking myriad road projects.
"We still have a long way to go," Nweke acknowledged. "But the point I'm making this afternoon is that we've come a long way from where we were in 1999 under the military."
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