Nigeria rebels give up arms

LAGOS: Nearly all known militant leaders in Nigeria's troubled oil hub have given up their weapons in an amnesty deal, raising hopes for stability and the country's return as Africa's top crude producer.

Some of the most prominent rebel commanders emerged from their strongholds over the weekend to sign on to the deal just hours ahead of a government-set amnesty deadline.

The move gave a boost to President Umaru Yar'Adua's efforts to stem the violence in the Niger Delta, home to huge reserves of some of the world's finest crude and gas.

Attacks on oil facilities in the past three years have reduced Nigeria's oil output by a third and helped send oil prices sky-rocketting to last year's record high of 147 dollars a barrel.

The big four rebel leaders -- Victor Ben (also known as Boyloaf), Ateke Tom, Government Ekpemupolo (Tompolo) and Farah Dagogo -- have now surrendered their arms, the last three at the 11th hour.

"The disarmament of the last prominent militant group in the Niger Delta could see years of violence come to an end in yet another geopolitical hot spot and could help finally restore the region's oil production to its full potential," said Vienna-based JBC Energy.

Richard Fox of London-based Fitch Ratings, said the amnesty was a positive step but "it would be optimistic to think that violence will go away completely".

In the near term, the impact is "positive for oil exports which are expected to reach between 1.8-2 million barrels per day in October -- well in excess of the country's OPEC quota," said Standard Chartered Bank's chief reseacher Razia Khan.

However some rebels have vowed to fight on. The leading militants who have surrendered had links to the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) -- the most active and visible armed group of the last three years.

Members of that group have refused to recognise the amnesty, appointed new commanders and warned of a new round of campaign to "commence soon". A ceasefire it declared ends on October 15.

MEND spokesman Jomo Gbomo said in an email that following the departure of its commanders whose identities had been compromised, the group "is in a stronger position than ever and observers will see this strength in the coming weeks and months".

Surrendering arms on Saturday, Dagogo, who was MEND's overall field commander, warned: "There are still thousands of people willing to continue fighting in the creeks and only the actions of the government can win over our brothers still bent on fighting".

MEND leader Henry Okah, freed in July as part of the amnesty deal after treason charges against him were dropped, said the unrest was likely to continue because the root cause of the violence had not been addressed.

The real test of the success of the amnesty and efforts to clean up the Niger Delta of the threat of militancy, is yet to be seen.

"There is need to follow up this amnesty with concrete steps," said Fox.

The militants took up arms in the swamps off the Atlantic Ocean's Gulf of Guinea in 2006, claiming to fight for a fairer distribution of the nation's oil wealth for the impoverished people of the Niger Delta, where most of the oil is drilled but which has seen little money from the country's top export earner.

The crisis in the Niger Delta region has been a thorn in the flesh of the authorities in Abuja whose goal is to have Africa's most populous nation of 140 million people, ranked among the world's 20 leading economies.

Sabotage of oil facilities and kidnapping of oil workers is costing sub-Saharan Africa's second largest economy an estimated one billion dollars a month.

Nigeria is fighting for its position as Africa's top oil exporter after it was overtaken by post-war Angola early this year.