Nigeria's rebels declare truce

LAGOS: Nigeria's main militant group waging an "oil war" against the government declared a 60-day truce after the release of its leader Henry Okah under an amnesty deal.

"Effective, 0000 hours (2300 gmt) Wednesday July 15, 2009, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) will be observing a temporary ceasefire for a 60 day period," the group said in a statement.

A day before Okah's release on Monday, the MEND took its "oil war" into Lagos, the country's economic heart, killing at least five people in its first ever attack on Africa's biggest city while sabotaging an oil depot in the harbour area.

"Hopefully, the ceasefire period will create an enabling environment for progressive dialogue," MEND said, adding that the decision was driven by several factors, notably Okah's release after nearly two years in jail.

Okah, 45, a marine engineer was arrested in Angola in September 2007 for arms trafficking. The state has issued an unconditional pardon and dropped treason charges.

MEND said the leader's release was "a step towards genuine peace and prosperity if Nigeria is open to frank talks and deals sincerely with the root issues" of the militancy in one of Africa's top oil producers.

It said during the ceasefire, it will have negotiators talk to the government over its demands.

But a key pre-condition for the negotiations will be the withdrawal of an elite government security team from the oil-rich Niger Delta, where MEND has staged several attacks and kidnappings.

"A compulsory prelude to talks is the withdrawal of the military Joint Task Forces from the Gbaramatu communities and the return of all the displaced persons back to their various homes," the statement said.

Gbaramatu, in the Delta State, one of the country's nine oil-producing provinces, was the scene of some of the most fierce clashes between government troops and MEND fighters in recent months.

Violence in the southern region of the world's eight largest oil exporter has cut output by more than 30 percent over the past three-and-a-half years.

Nigeria, Africa's most populous country, relies on oil for more than 90 percent of its export earnings.

The MEND has claimed responsibility for most of the attacks on oil facilities in Nigeria.

The group, which is fighting to get more oil wealth for locals in the oil-producing south, had initially announced a unilateral ceasefire on September 21 last year.

But this was broken in January this year amid allegations of a government offensive.

On May 13, the JTF launched a major offensive against the militants. MEND and human rights agencies claimed thousands of people were forced out of their homes, some of which were set ablaze in the Gbaramatu Kingdom area.

London-based rights group Amnesty International in May said thousands of villagers were displaced since May 13 following heavy clashes between the JTF, which it said used helicopter gunships, and armed groups in Delta State.

After weeks of clashes with government troops, MEND on June 7 announced an "all-out oil war".

Following Okah's release on Monday, MEND was hopeful that "hundreds of other men and women languishing in detention over the Niger Delta issue will also be set free".

Okah was the most high-profile militant to take advantage of an unconditional amnesty announced last month by President Umaru Yar'Adua for rebels in the swamps and creeks of the delta.

The amnesty offer, an attempt to blunt worsening militant violence directed at oil companies, is valid until October 4.