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Nigeria Says Amnesty Plan Key for Resolving Niger Delta Unrest

The Nigerian government is expected to announce details of an amnesty program for militants in the Niger Delta, later Thursday. The plan is considered critical in bringing stability to the heartland of Africa's biggest oil and gas industry.

President Umaru Yar'Adua has enthusiastically welcomed reports that a prominent militant leader in the troubled Niger Delta is ready to accept his amnesty offer, describing it as a very positive development.

A militia commander in the main oil city, Port Harcourt - Ateke Tom - is said to be in agreement with government on the amnesty program. Defense Minister Shetimma Mustapha says the government is delighted with Ateke Tom's response.

"I think the more of them that come out the better for us, because the task of the JTF [Joint Military Task Force] will be simpler. The good intentions of the government will now come forward. The president, himself, has said it himself that he was elated with joy when he heard the story of Ateke Tom," said Mustapha.

Other militant commanders have expressed enthusiasm for the government's offer, but say they doubt its sincerity, because of a stepped up military offensive against militants in the region. Niger Delta researcher and writer Edward Oforome says the current offensive has undermined the peace process.

"Amnesty is a good initiative, if there is honesty in it," he said. "My reason for saying so is because we read in [news]papers that they [government] will grant amnesty, but the following day you hear them fighting. One would think if amnesty is intended to be given and that they are even working towards it, that that will be enough to bring about the laying down of arms."

Representatives of militants have met with top government officials on the details of the amnesty program. Interior Minister Godwin Abbe - a retired army general, who heads the panel that drew up the amnesty program - says the initiative will see the rebels return to mainstream society.

"We are convinced that the recommendations in the report will provide a comprehensive framework for dealing with the matters of disarmament, demobilization, rehabilitation and reintegration of ex-militants," he said. "The framework recommends the full participation of all tiers of government, security agencies, civil society groups and all other stakeholders in achieving the goal of general amnesty for the ex militants and the establishment of lasting peace in the Niger Delta."

President Yar'Adua came to power in 2007, promising efforts to bring peace to the Niger Delta, where five decades of oil exploitation has yielded almost no benefits for poor communities. Critics say the president's response to the region's troubles has been incoherent.

But Mr.Yar'Adua says he expects the crisis in the oil region to be resolved by December and has appealed to militants to accept his amnesty offer.

"I hereby reiterate our commitment to granting amnesty to all militants who are ready to lay down their arms and return to being law-abiding citizens of our fatherland. I urge all militants in the region to take advantage of this offer and lay down their arms, and cease all acts of disobedience to law and order," he said.

Attacks on oil facilities and workers have cut oil production in Nigeria, one of the world's largest crude oil exporters, by more than 20 percent since the early 2006. And, although several Niger Delta residents have expressed support for the amnesty plan, most of them say the government must address the multiple needs of the area to achieve lasting peace. Paul Ogbeche lives in the oil city, Warri.

"The amnesty granted to the militants by the federal government is the right decision at the right time. But the federal government should look beyond the amnesty and look at the major problems the Niger Delta indigenous [people] are facing and ensure to the effect that it brings succor to the plight of the people," said Paul Ogbeche, who lives in the oil city, Warri.

Nigeria's biggest armed group has rejected the amnesty as "unrealistic". The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta says it will only consider a "well-defined" amnesty program negotiated by both sides and international mediators.