/ 14 September 2009

Nigeria rebels call for extension of amnesty deadline

Key rebel leaders in Nigeria’s oil-producing Niger Delta have urged the government to push back its October 4 amnesty deadline by three months to allow for peace talks, activists said on Monday.

Late on Sunday a top government delegation told the militants the deadline to hand over weapons would not be extended.

President Umaru Yar’Adua in June offered amnesty to all gunmen in the region to stem unrest which has prevented Nigeria from pumping much above two-thirds of its oil capacity, costing it billions of dollars a year in lost revenue.

The government delegation, which included Defence Minister Godwin Abbe, met with at least two key militants — Ateke Tom and Government Tompolo — at a rebel camp near Nigeria’s oil hub Port Harcourt on Sunday.

”Tompolo does not see justification for surrendering arms yet. Arms surrender was not supposed to be the first thing on the table,” said Jonjon Oyeinfe, former head of the Ijaw Youth Council ethnic rights group, who attended the meeting.

”He wants the amnesty extended by three months.”

The militant leaders, who command thousands of gunmen in the Niger Delta, want the government to address a series of demands including the military withdrawal from much of the region before they hand over their weapons.

The government has said the militants must accept the amnesty without conditions and that once they have done so the underlying issues can be addressed.

”Ateke Tom has not changed his mind in disarming. He is still for the amnesty, but he is aware that any further injustices would ignite more violence in the Niger Delta,” said Akinaka Richard, executive director of Niger Delta activist group the Grassroots Initiative for Peace and Democracy.

Security sources fear that if peace efforts fail this could give the military the green light to take a tougher approach, radicalising militants and provoking a new wave of violence that could further disrupt output.

Nigeria’s main militant group, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (Mend), has warned it will end its ceasefire on Tuesday after a two-month lull in fighting. The government delegation urged the two militant leaders, who are core commanders with Mend, at Sunday’s meeting to convince the militant coalition to extend the ceasefire.

”The plea for an extension can only be okayed by Henry Okah, who we have consulted but are yet to get feedback from,” Mend’s spokesperson told Reuters.

Okah, Mend’s suspected leader, has accepted the amnesty terms after gun-running and treason charges against him were dropped and he was freed. — Reuters