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Rebel Leader Meets with Nigerian Officials on Violence in Oil Region - 2004-09-30

The leader of a militia group from the southern oil-producing region of Nigeria met with officials in Abuja Thursday to discuss his group's demands for autonomy and revenues from oil sales. The group agreed to a temporary cease-fire on Wednesday to allow the talks to take place.

The meeting was intended to avert a threat by the rebel leader Mujahid Okubo-Asari and his militia to target foreign oil workers and facilities in southern Nigeria starting Friday.

Nigeria is Africa's largest oil-producing nation. But although the vast majority of its oil comes from the southern Niger Delta region, the area remains one of the poorest parts of the country. Mr. Okubo-Asari is demanding more money from oil revenues be spent in the region, and greater autonomy.

An assistant to Mr. Okubo-Asari, who declined to give his name, told VOA that whether the cease-fire continues depends on the outcome of the talks.

"We have a meeting and we have stopped firing because of the meeting. And whatever we discuss, whatever we discuss after the meeting, we'll know that way what route we will go about," he said.

Nigerian army troops patrolling the Niger Delta region have engaged in sporadic battles with several local militias on a number of occasions. Some militia members have been tapping into oil pipelines to siphon crude to sell on the black market in order to purchase weapons and ammunition.

The violence has hurt oil production and contributed to the recent sharp rise in worldwide oil prices.

The London-based human rights organization Amnesty International reports that 500 people were killed in the fighting last month alone. Spokesman George Ngwe calls the situation a humanitarian crisis, and says the Nigerian government needs to do more.

"We understand the situation has gotten worse," he said. "People, civilians caught between, there are lots of internally displaced and lots of killings, so the figure of 500 is conservative. The security situation is likely to get worse because this is a long-term problem. We don't foresee an immediate solution to it if the government doesn't sit down with the communities that are involved to discuss a permanent solution to this problem."

Last year an uprising by local residents in the Niger Delta region forced oil companies to temporarily suspend operations. The situation is not that bad this year, at least not yet, and Thursday's talks were intended to ensure the situation does not get to that point again.