Nigeria rebels declare cease-fire in oil-rich delta

Opting for dialogue, President Umaru Yar'Adua promises to address underdevelopment in the region.

Mike Hutchings/Reuters
Nigeria's President Umaru Yar'Adua is shown in South Africa on June 3. In reponse to last Thursday's Mr. Yar'Adua has pleged a two-pronged approach in dealing with the Niger delta, addressing under-development in the region, but saying he will not tolerate armed militants there as well.

A rebel group in Nigeria has declared a cease-fire in the oil-rich Niger Delta, where crude exports have been curbed by pipeline sabotage and kidnappings of oil workers. The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) said it was prepared to give dialogue a chance, paving the way for possible peace talks in a long-troubled region of Nigeria, the fourth-largest supplier of crude oil to the United States.

Last Thursday, MEND mounted an armed attack on an offshore oil rig and kidnapped an American oil worker, the latest in a string of such seizures. Most have later been released unharmed. The group says it's fighting for a fairer share of Nigeria's oil wealth for neglected delta communities, as well as reparations for pollution caused by oil extraction. Other militant groups operate in the delta, where about 20 million people live.

CNN reports that in a statement issued Sunday, MEND said it would begin its truce at midnight on Tuesday until further notice. It said its decision was in response to an appeal by "Niger Delta elders to give peace and dialogue another chance." Traditional chiefs hold great sway in parts of Nigeria. The strife in the area, which has affected American and other multinational oil companies, has cut Nigeria's crude output and contributed to higher global oil prices, according to analysts.

MEND has insisted on the release of its detained leader Henry Okah, who is on trial for treason and gun-running, as a precondition for talks, reports Reuters. In an e-mail, the group said that Mr. Okah should be allowed to attend a proposed peace summit called by President Umaru Yar'Adua. Some analysts are doubtful that either the militants or the national and local authorities are ready for talks, and the summit dates haven't been fixed.

The Associated Press reports that MEND previously declared a cease-fire in May 2007 after President Yar'Adua's inauguration and spoke of joining a peace process. This truce was called off, though, and attacks on oil producers resumed after Okah was arrested in Angola last September.

Last week's attack on an oil facility run by Royal Dutch Shell showed MEND's increased reach, which the group was quick to highlight in a claim of responsibility, reports The New York Times. The platform is 75 miles offshore, and the rebels used speedboats in the attack. Although they were unable to enter and blow up the control room – their stated aim – the incident led Shell to shut down the facility, which produces some 225,000 barrels a day in the Bonga field.

Bloomberg reports that a separate attack on an onshore Chevron pipeline, for which MEND claimed indirect responsibility, also cut Nigeria's crude output by about 120,000 barrels a day.

The pipeline was still down as of Sunday, according to Nigeria's oil minister.

In response to Thursday's oil-rig raid, Yar'Adua called last week for a military offensive against the rebels, reports VOA News. A presidential spokesman said that militants who "spurn the peace overtures of the federal government" would face the full consequences, as authorities must restore law and order. The rebels' cause of fighting for economic justice often blurs into communal and ethnic rivalries, says VOA News, and extortion and sabotage have become big business in the oil-rich south. This instability has dented Nigeria's appeal to Western oil companies.

The opposition Action Congress Party says the violence in the delta is a "crisis of immense proportion" that requires a sustained peace process that gives voices to local communities, not just the elders, reports the Vanguard newspaper in Lagos. In a statement, the party asks how the rebels were able to reach Shell's offshore rig and calls for a probe into the attack.

The tussle over who gets the spoils of Nigeria's mineral resources is testing the country's political framework, reports The Christian Science Monitor. Oil extraction, which began in the 1950s, has spawned a superrich elite, while most of the country's 140 million people get by on a couple of dollars a day.

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