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Niger Delta Chief Urges Truce in Nigeria's Troubled Oil Region

A prominent community leader in Nigeria's troubled Niger Delta says the unrest in the oil-rich region must stop. The appeal comes amid threats of renewed widespread violence in the region.

The Nigerian government plans to strengthen its special military force in the Niger Delta to better fight militants in the region. President Umaru Yar'Adua announced earlier this month that new rules of engagement were being considered for the military in the Niger Delta.

But a traditional ruler in the Okpe kingdom of the delta, Patrick Aziza, says the deep-seated frustration in the Niger Delta, where many of the 30 million inhabitants have seen few benefits from five decades of oil exploitation, is justified, but urged the youths to lay down their arms. Aziza, a retired army general, also appealed to the government to speed up its pledge to develop the region.

"You solve this problem, if you have solved it and the boys are still aggressive then you can say the boys are violent. Although criminality has come to creep into it. But whatever it is, my advice to the youths is that they should cease fire. The government is genuine to negotiate with them. But I advice the government to do it fast," he said.

Oil industry operations and the pollution it brought destroyed traditional livelihood such as fishing and farming, leaving the region with youth unemployment of more than 80 percent, according to government figures. Most communities lack fresh water, electricity, health facilities and schools. This has angered some of the region's youth and incited them to take up arms.

Militants and criminals seeking ransoms have intensified attacks and kidnappings against foreign workers in the Niger Delta, a vast wetlands region. Nigeria, the world's eighth largest oil exporter is already suffering huge losses because of violence in the delta.

A presidential committee report says Nigeria lost at least $28 billion to oil theft and sabotage in the first nine months of 2008. Some 1,000 lives were lost within the same period.

Bombings of oil pipelines and kidnappings of oil workers by armed gangs in the creeks of the Niger Delta, home to Africa's biggest oil and gas industry, have cut Nigeria's crude oil output sharply over the past three years.