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Nigerian Rebel Group Agrees to Ceasefire

Nigeria's most prominent militant group says it began a unilateral 60-day ceasefire Wednesday, as a result of the release of rebel leader Henry Okah.

The release of Okah has been one of the one of MEND's key demands, since it launched attacks against the oil sector in early 2006.

MEND declared war on the oil industry in May, in what it said was a response to the biggest onslaught by the Nigerian army on its positions. Militants clashed with troops and attacked oil installations, which cut output in Africa's top producer.

MEND contends that the oil wealth of Nigeria has not sufficiently benefitted the local population. Oil and gas account for 90 percent of foreign exchange earnings in Nigeria, Africa's most populous nation, with 140-million people.

A resident of the Niger Delta and head of the Human Rights Defenders Organization, Omon Irabor, says Nigeria must convene what he calls a "sovereign national conference", to resolve disputes regarding the sharing of national revenue

"Sit down at the roundtable and talk. That is what we call the sovereign national conference - a sovereign national conference of ethnic nationalities. Let us agree on the terms that will make us live together," Irabor said. "What are the terms and conditions of our living together? What do we intend to do? You bring your groundnut, I bring my oil. You bring your cocoa, I bring my rice. Then let's see how we share it, so that we can have a harmonious relationship."

In June, Nigerian officials offered a 60-day amnesty to gunmen in the Niger Delta, who have been responsible for pipeline bombings, attacks on oil and gas installations and the kidnapping of industry workers, in the past three years. The government estimates as many as 20,000 fighters could participate, before the program ends, October fourth.

The ceasefire declaration is seen as a boost to President Umaru Yar'Adua's efforts to end years of unrest in Nigeria's oil region.