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Nigerian Militants Free Hostages

The main Nigerian militant group has released six crew members it seized earlier this month from the Singapore flagged oil tanker Sichem Peace.

The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, MEND, said the gesture was "a dividend of the current cease-fire" and challenged the government to reciprocate.

Last month, President Umaru Yar'Adua declared a 60-day amnesty for militants willing to lay down their arms. MEND, which has claimed responsibility for most of the attacks in the oil-rich region, initially rejected the offer.

The group shifted its stance following the release of its presumed leader, Henry Okah, and has indicated its readiness to commence talks with the government. MEND is in the process of forming a negotiating team.

A spokesman for the Nigerian military in the Niger Delta, Colonel Rabe Abubakar, told VOA the government has shown tremendous goodwill and commitment to a peaceful resolution of the crisis.

"The present government has given them all what it takes to have the confidence of the people that it is sincere in all its projects towards the Niger Delta; in all its plans towards the Niger Delta," Abubakar said. "You can see it; the release of Okah, the ministry [of the Niger Delta], and some other developmental plans. I think the government of the day is extremely sincere about solving the Niger Delta crisis amicably."

MEND says it is fighting for greater share of the oil wealth for the people of the Niger Delta region, where more than 70 percent of the inhabitants survive on less than $1 a day.

The tanker was attacked by rebels near Escravos, in the troubled Niger Delta. The militants seized six out of the 19 crew members on board, including two Russians, two Filipinos and one Ukrainian.

The release of the men is seen as an important goodwill gesture and a major boost for the peace process. But MEND insists the army must withdraw from the Gbaramatu community in Delta state, and allow displaced people to return home.