Sun, Oct 03, 2004 - Page 6 News List

Nigeria, rebels reach peace pact

AP , ABUJA, NIGERIA

Rebels in the Niger Delta, where unrest sent world oil prices soaring this week, promised on Friday to stop fighting government forces and hand in their weapons, the Nigerian president's office said.

"The groups affirm commitment to the peace offer by the president, promise to cease all hostilities against themselves and all economic and social interests of the Nigerian state," it said in a statement.

The rebels threatened earlier this week to go to war if their demands for a bigger slice of Nigeria's oil wealth, greater autonomy for the Ijaw people and a national debate on Nigeria's problems were not met.

Mujahid Dokubo Asari, leader of the People's Volunteer Force, began talks on Wednesday with officials from President Olusegun Obasanjo's government ahead of an Oct. 1 deadline set by his group for oil multinationals and foreigners to quit the Niger Delta.

Asari and Ateke Tom, leader of the rival Niger Delta Vigilante group, signed a ceasefire pact in which they promised "the disbandment of all militias and militant groups as well as total disarmament," according to the president's statement.

"It is a victory for my people," Asari said. "It is the first time that the president and the government of Nigeria recognized that nationalities in Nigeria have the right to ask for resources control and self-determination. It is a giant step forward."

He said after a seven-hour meeting on Friday that the agreement would take effect immediately.

"When there is a dialogue process, the most important thing is that your grievances are addressed and that we discussed it. You cannot get everything on the same day," he said, referring to the Oct. 1 deadline set by his group for oil multinationals and foreigners to leave the Niger Delta.

Fighting between the army and militias in the Niger Delta, which has lasted more than a year, had intensified in recent months. Violence escalated in August, when the army launched attacks on rebel camps.

Some 500 people have died in unrest in recent weeks, according to Amnesty International, but the government said only 13 were killed.

The unrest helped send oil prices on an upward spiral which saw them burst through the US$50-a-barrel barrier on Tuesday, but drop back when the peace talks began. They closed above US$50 a barrel for the first time in New York trading on Friday, as traders fretted about Nigerian oil production amid the threatened rebel uprising.

"It is a welcome development. The peace deal is a follow-up to a previous initiative of the Rivers State government asking armed gangs to stop killing themselves and confronting the federal government," Rivers State spokesman Emmanuel Okah said.

"The government is prepared to integrate them (Asari and Tom) into the larger society, but they have to faithfully implement the agreement by disarming and disbanding their groups. They have to also surrender their weapons," he said.

The government would grant the rebels "amnesty from prosecution" if they did not back down on the agreement, Okah said. Previous ceasefire pacts had been violated.

The Rivers State parliament recently passed a law ordering 10 years in prison for anyone found guilty of armed violence.

The Niger Delta accounts for the bulk of Nigeria's crude output of 2.3 million barrels per day. Nigeria, Africa's largest oil exporter and the world's seventh largest, derives more than 95 percent of its foreign exchange earnings from oil.

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