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Nigerian Oil Rebel Released on Bail

A detained militant leader in Nigeria has been freed on bail in what is widely seen as a reconciliatory gesture by the new government. From Abuja, Gilbert da Costa reports for VOA that the release could have an effect on the violence in the oil-rich Niger Delta.

Mujahid Dokubo-Asari was not in court when Justice Peter Olayiwola granted his bail request for health reasons. Nearly two years in custody under what have been described as very harsh conditions have taken their toll on the leader of the Niger Delta People's Volunteer Force. He is said to be hypertensive and diabetic, and recent medical tests confirmed his health is failing.

Dokubo-Asari's supporters, who defied a massive security cordon, broke into chants of jubilation moments after the announcement.

Prosecutors did not oppose the bail application, but set conditions, which included a ban on all forms of political activities and informing the secret police about his travels within Nigeria.

Lead prosecutor Salihu Aliyu told VOA the militant leader's declining health required immediate attention, making it impossible to bring him to trial."You cannot try a dead person," said Aliyu. "If the accused as in this case is seriously sick, then it is only humane and in accordance with the law to seek the best medical treatment he could find."

A week earlier the same court had previously refused to grant the militant bail, citing national security worries.

Analysts say the release is part of a grand scheme by the new government of President Umaru Yar'Adu to bring its oil-producing delta region from the brink of anarchy.

Dokubo-Asari's release has featured prominently on demands issued by armed groups in the unruly region.

Senator Emmanuel Diffi, an ethnic Ijaw leader and one of several community leaders who attended the court session, is confident that his release will ease tension in the delta. "He is not the kind of character that will run away," said Diffi. "No. Definitely he needs to be treated. There will definitely be peace, you can be sure. There will be peace."

Political and community leaders across the region have argued that Asari's release is an essential confidence-building gesture ahead of planned peace talks to resolve the crisis.

Militant attacks on oil facilities and kidnappings of foreign workers have reduced Nigeria's oil production by more than 700,000 barrels per day, representing a quarter of Nigeria's total output.

Thousands of foreign oil workers have left the region to escape the violence.

Troops reportedly shot dead nine militants during a gun battle in the delta on Wednesday. Two soldiers are said to have been killed in the shootout.