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Nigerian militants declare ceasefire

Financial Times

By Tom Burgis in Lagos

Published: July 16 2009 03:00 | Last updated: July 16 2009 03:00

A leading militant group in the oil-rich Niger Delta yesterday declared a 60-day ceasefire and said it would seek talks with the Nigerian government.

The ceasefire comes 48 hours after militants expanded their attacks beyond the delta with an assault on a fuel-importing facility near the financial district in Lagos, the commercial capital.

“Hopefully, the ceasefire period will create an enabling environment for progressive dialogue,” the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (Mend) said in a statement.

Mend said its announcement was motivated by the release on Monday of Henry Okah , widely believed to have served as one of the leaders of the group. He was arrested in Angola in September 2007 and extradited to Nigeria.

Mr Okah, who says he is in poor health, is the first prominent militant to accept an amnesty that the government has offered following the launch in mid-May of its biggest offensive in the region in years.

The offensive set off several attacks by Mend which have shut down more than 300,000 barrels a day of production pumped by Royal Dutch Shell, Chevron and Agip.

Mend said the start of talks would be conditional on the return of thousands of people who fled their homes in the western Delta state during the military’s offensive, and the withdrawal of troops.

Umaru Yar’Adua, Nig-eria’s president, says resolving the crisis is a priority, though it is unclear how much room for compromise he may have with militants who are regarded as criminals by many in the political elite in Abuja, the capital. Some of his backers have called for a purely military approach to end the crisis. The government has declared a ceasefire during the period of its amnesty, which will be open until October 4. Years of unrest have cut off roughly one-third of production in Africa’s biggest oil industry but most analysts say that no solution is likely to hold unless the underlying grievances of the delta’s inhabitants are addressed.

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