As security agents intensify the search for Prof. Kamene Okonjo, the abducted mother of the Coordinating Minister for the Economy and Minister of Finance, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, hope for a clue on her whereabouts rose yesterday with the arrest of more suspects.
The military said 63 people had been arrested in raids conducted on several locations in the search for Okonjo, who was abducted last Sunday at the palace of her husband, the Obi of Ogwashi-Uku, Prof. Chukwuka Okonjo.
The police had earlier arrested four persons, including two policemen who were supposed to be on duty when the 10-man gang struck at the palace, and two members of domestic staff in the palace.
According to Reuters, soldiers from the Four Brigade Battalion raided several locations in Ogwashi-Ukwu, Delta State yesterday during which they made the arrests.
"Yesterday, the Four Brigade raided Ogwashi-Ukwu in search of Mama," army spokeswoman, Roseline Managbe, told Reuters.
"Those arrested are being questioned," she added.
The kidnappers had on Monday contacted the Okonjo family during which they listed conditions for the release of the minister's mother, chief of which was that the family should pay N200 million as ransom.
The demand for N200 million was made after an initial demand for N1 billion, which the family made clear it could not pay.
Sources said the abductors had initially demanded to speak with Okonjo-Iweala, but were not allowed to do so.
They were, however, made to speak with Okonjo's eldest son, Onyema.
Security sources said Onyema demanded to speak with his mother to ascertain the state of her health and to be sure that he was not dealing with impostors.
After he had spoken with his mother, whom sources said was alive and well despite the trauma, the kidnappers changed their demand by asking Okonjo-Iweala to bring the money the Federal Government had recovered from oil marketers who had abused the fuel subsidy scheme.
Further negotiations with the kidnappers made them reduce the ransom from N1 billion to N200 million, it was learnt.
"We are waiting and hope that progress can be made," one of the sources told THISDAY.
Onyema, in a telephone interview with THISDAY, however, debunked media reports that the kidnappers had demanded $1 billion as ransom.
He said: "We do not have any further information at this time. I do not know where people got the story that the kidnappers are asking for $1 billion ransom; that is certainly not true.
"As soon as we get any information, we will keep you informed. But we have not heard anything from them so far, it's all rubbish and rumours that they are asking for $1 billion."
It was also learnt yesterday that the family and the kidnappers were still negotiating and the ransom may have come down further.
However, THISDAY could not ascertain the actual amount the kidnappers are now willing to take as ransom.
Sources who spoke on the incident yesterday merely said both the Delta State Government and security agents were working hard to ensure that Okonjo is brought back home to her distraught family.
The state Commissioner of Police, Ikechukwu Aduba, fielding questions yesterday from reporters in Asaba after a news conference, also said efforts were being made to rescue the queen but declined to give details.