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Nigerian rebel leaders give up arms in amnesty deal
Abuja, Oct 4 (Agencies):
Published on 4 Oct. 2009 11:45 PM IST
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Hundreds of Nigerian rebel fighters gave up their weapons and accepted an amnesty deal on Saturday in the most concerted effort yet to end years of fighting in the oil-producing Niger Delta. Militant commanders Ateke Tom and Farah Dagogo, both responsible for years of attacks on the oil industry in the eastern Niger Delta, led gunmen from camps in the mangrove creeks to the oil hub of Port Harcourt to disarm. Government Tompolo, the final prominent militant, meanwhile signed an amnesty agreement in the capital Abuja after meeting with President Umaru Yar'Adua. His followers, the main rebel faction in the western delta, are expected to disarm on Sunday. "Now the stage is set for the post-amnesty period," Yar'Adua said after the signing ceremony. "Government will now meet with all the militants and leaders to have their input into the rehabilitation and reorientation programme." Unrest in the Niger Delta has prevented Nigeria, the world's eighth biggest oil exporter, from pumping much above two-thirds of its production capacity. It also costs the country $1 billion a month in lost revenues, according to the central bank, and has frequently helped to push up global energy prices. "I urge others who are yet to do so to also disarm," Tom said at his disarmament ceremony, held in a dilapidated amusement park called "Tourist Beach". "I believe Yar'Adua is sincere. He wants to develop the Niger Delta, so let's give him a chance," he said, after his fighters handed over rocket launchers, grenades, heavy machine guns, automatic rifles and barrels of ammunition. The amnesty offer expires at midnight on Sunday. Hundreds of Tom's supporters paraded in convoys through Port Harcourt after the ceremony, riding on cars, chanting and slugging from bottles of whisky and Ogogoro, locally brewed gin. "It is not proper for us to be in the bush. We cannot enjoy our lives. So I am happy today," said Wisdom Aziza, who said he had fought in the creeks for four years. "But it is not easy to stop. The government must empower the boys, allocate them to a job, not just give them money. Train them, give them skills or else we will go back to the creeks." Despite Nigeria's oil riches, the vast majority of its 140 million people live on $2 a day or less and some of the most acute poverty is in the villages of the delta. The militants say they are fighting for a fairer share of the oil wealth. But the line between militancy and criminality is blurred. Some militants have grown rich from a trade in stolen crude oil and extortion, with hundreds of expatriates and wealthy Nigerians kidnapped for ransom over the past three years. Local residents fear that they will return to the creeks unless those who hand over their weapons can quickly find work. And activists say even if commanders disarm, there is little to stop fighters from finding new leaders and resuming attacks. "Give them jobs. If you do not give them jobs, they will go back to what they did before," said Ibiso David, a fish seller and mother of three who came to watch the ceremony, as Tom's muscular young fighters banged drums and chanted behind her. Farah Dagogo's disarmament across town at the State Security Service (SSS) headquarters was a more sober affair. Minibuses delivered hundreds of rifles and machine guns, laid on the ground in front of canopies shading dignitaries from the sun. "This is not a surrender ... There are still thousands of people willing to continue fighting in the creeks and only the actions of government can win over our brothers," Dagogo said. The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), the region's main militant group, said in a statement it had "ushered out" Dagogo and that new commanders would take over and soon begin a "next phase" of its campaign. But MEND has been divided and weakened by the amnesty. Its suspected leader, Henry Okah, has already accepted the offer. "Overall, the major groups will have been disarmed. We hope that the pockets of youth in the Niger Delta who are still outstanding should completely disarm between the hours of now to midnight on Sunday," presidential adviser Timi Alaibe said.

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