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THE NEW YORK TIMES: Relieved Nigerian Leader Heads to U.S.

By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
ABUJA, Nigeria (AP) — Nigeria's president heads to Washington on a high note after the resolution of two issues of concern to his U.S. allies — the release Monday of kidnapped oil workers, including two Americans, and his agreement to hand over the continent's most infamous warlord.
President Olusegun Obasanjo, a former military leader, is now seen as a force for peace and democracy on the world's poorest continent. He is to meet with President Bush on Wednesday.
Some Nigerians say Obasanjo is a good African but a bad Nigerian who devotes too much time to regional issues. His political ambitions in the conflict-plagued West African nation clash with his international reputation as a champion of democracy, critics say.
On the domestic front, he has failed to control militants who have launched increasing attacks on oil facilities in Nigeria's oil-rich southern delta. The militants released their last remaining foreign hostages on Monday but threatened to continue attacks.
Americans Cody Oswalt and Russell Spell and Briton John Hudspith were released just before dawn after more than five weeks in captivity, said government spokesman Abel Oshevire.
The U.S. applauded Obasanjo's regional mediation when he offered Liberian warlord Charles Taylor refuge under an agreement that helped end Liberia's civil war in 2003.
Since then, though, the U.S., the U.N. and others have called for Taylor to be handed over to an international war crimes tribunal.
Taylor is accused of starting civil war in Liberia and its neighbor, Sierra Leone, that killed some 3 million people, and of harboring al-Qaida suicide bombers who attacked the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, killing 12 Americans and more than 200 Africans.
Obasanjo initially resisted calls to surrender Taylor, who has been living in a luxurious government villa in the southern town of Calabar. But Saturday, after Liberia's new President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf asked that Taylor be handed over for trial, Obasanjo agreed.
The logistics of getting Taylor to Sierra Leone have not been worked out, leading to fears he might escape. Taylor escaped from a U.S. penitentiary in Boston to launch Liberia's war.
The militants have targeted the oil industry in the world's eighth-largest producer of crude and the fifth largest supplier to the United States, blowing up oil installations and cutting production by 26 percent.
Since the attacks began, Royal Dutch Shell has closed half its oil fields and one of its two main loading terminals. Despite the danger, oil companies remain drawn to the country because its quality benchmark Bonnie Light is so easily — and inexpensively — extracted.
The militants took nine foreign oil workers hostage Feb. 18 from a barge owned by Willbros Group Inc., the Houston-based oil services company that was laying pipeline in the delta for Royal Dutch Shell. The group released six of the captives after 12 days.
The last three hostages could be seen from a distance as they greeted officials Monday, but the freed men did not immediately address reporters.
In a news release, the militants said it had better uses for the fighters guarding the hostages — namely more attacks on oil facilities.
There's some sympathy for ''the boys,'' as some Nigerians call the militants, because they call for a better deal for residents of the Delta, who remain among the poorest Nigerians, though their land is the source of the country's wealth.
The White House has said corruption, endemic among Nigerian officials, will be discussed when the presidents meet. Obasanjo promised to root out corruption when he was elected, but is accused of using the campaign against opponents as elections near.
Obasanjo's supporters have been campaigning for a constitutional amendment that would allow the Nigerian leader to run for a third term next year. Obasanjo has not said he wants to run again, but has resisted U.S. calls to announce he will not.

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