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Nigerian Rebel Group Now Ready for Talks After Release of Leader

The main Nigerian rebel group in the Niger Delta, the Movement for the Emancipation of Niger Delta (MEND), says the release of its leader means it can open talks with the government to end violence in the oil-rich region.

The release of Henry Okah is seen as a major boost for Nigeria's efforts to end clashes in the restive oil-rich Niger Delta. A Niger Delta analyst and member of the presidential panel on the Niger Delta, Tony Uranta, says the government should go a step further to engage the militant group in talks to bring stability to the Niger Delta, home to Africa's largest oil industry.

"With Henry out, the chances that we shall come to an understanding are brighter. But his being released does not mean immediately MEND will cease action because even the president's promise of amnesty has not meant that the Joint [military] Task Force has withdrawn from certain communities and areas in the creeks," said Uranta. "We must talk. I am talking about discussions between people representing MEND and other agitators in the Niger Delta and people representing the government."

The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, or MEND, made the release of Okah one of its key demands for ending the insurgency. Attacks on the oil industry have cut more than 20 percent of the nation's crude exports since 2006.

Justice Minister Michael Aondoakaa says Nigeria is willing to talk with the rebels, but appealed to the militants to end all hostilities against the oil industry.

"Let us pursue grievances within constitutional means," said Aondoakaa. "Sit on the table and find an amicable way. Both of us can work together and develop the area."

MEND claims to be fighting for a fairer share of the Niger Delta's oil wealth. Rebel leader Okah was released from jail Monday, after the government withdrew its case against him. He told reporters that he had no idea as to what the current situation was in the Niger Delta.

"You know I have been locked up for nearly 23 months," said Okah. "I do not know what is happening out there. I have to go out to know. I am still very sick."

Some Niger Delta residents are skeptical about the impact of Okah's release on the violence in the region. They say the Nigerian government has to do much more than just release Okah to achieve peace in the region.

On Sunday, MEND attacked an oil offloading facility in Lagos, killing five people in the group's first attack outside the Niger Delta, in several months.