Nigerian rebels call truce

July 15, 2009 11:24:28 AM PDT
Nigerian militants called a halt Wednesday to their campaign of attacking oil installations and kidnapping foreigners, then said military gunboats and troops were heading toward a rebel camp in a move that could upend the deal.The military quickly denied the allegation, saying it had no plans to attack rebels from the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, the country's main militant group.

Earlier Wednesday, the militants called the cease-fire, saying the government had met one of their demands and released an ailing rebel leader on Monday. Both sides had welcomed the prospect of negotiations to end the years of violence that have trimmed Nigeria's daily oil output by 25 percent to about 1.7 million barrels per day.

"Barely 12 hours into our cease-fire, the military Joint Task Force has dispatched seven gun boats with heavily armed troops from Warri and are headed towards one of our camps located around the Delta/Ondo state border," rebel spokesman Jomo Gbomo said in a statement e-mailed to The Associated Press.

"We are monitoring the armada and sincerely hope that the planned attack will be converted to a war exercise," Gbomo said. The military denied the rebels' allegations, calling them "borne out of mischief."

"We know where they are, but we don't intend to attack them," military spokesman Col. Rabe Mohammed told The Associated Press. "We are in total obedience to the directive of our political leaders and the proclamation of amnesty."

The militants said they hope the cease-fire would create an "enabling environment" for talks with the government on their demands. They say their impoverished region has not benefited from decades of oil production, and are agitating for more federally held oil funds to be sent to the south. They also want the government to withdraw troops from the area and help people return to homes they either fled amid the violence or were forced to leave.

The government has acknowledged the grievances of many in the Niger Delta, but denounces the militants as criminals who steal crude oil from Nigeria's wells and pipelines and profit by selling it overseas.

Still, no one denies that the Niger Delta remains poverty-stricken and polluted more than 50 years after oil first was pumped in the West African nation.

The government released ailing rebel leader Henry Okah on Monday, which in turn led the militants to ask for negotiations with officials.

Okah is the first militant released under a 60-day amnesty announced last month for militants willing to lay down their arms. At the time, the militants rejected the offer, saying an amnesty should be aimed at criminals not "freedom fighters."

Okah, who the rebels said has a kidney ailment, had been in custody since his September 2007 arrest in Angola on Nigerian charges of treason and gunrunning. Those charges have been dropped, according to his lawyer Femi Falana.

Timi Alaibe, special adviser to Nigerian President Umaru Yar'Adua, welcomed the truce on Wednesday, but called on other armed groups in the region to "lay down their arms and warmly and speedily embrace the amnesty deal."

"Peace and cooperation of all stakeholders is needed to accelerate ongoing efforts," Alaibe said.

Hours before Okah's release, the rebels staged their first attack outside the southern Delta region by setting fire to an oil depot and loading tankers in Lagos, Nigeria's economic powerhouse. Three naval officers and two oil workers were killed in that attack.