The Nigerian government says its amnesty program in the Niger Delta is progressing well and that last weekend's public surrender of weapons, the biggest since the amnesty began two weeks ago, marked a turning point in the process.
Officials say 5,000 ex-militants witnessed the handover of more than 500 assorted weapons, 100,000 rounds of ammunition and 14 gunboats in Bayelsa state last weekend.
But the main militant group, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, dismissed the amnesty program as "sheer deceit." It said the government had paid for weapons.
Amnesty Committee member Timiebe Koripamo-Agary reacted angrily to the allegation, saying it was in the best interest of militants to accept the amnesty offer.
"I don't think we need to pay anybody," said Timiebe Koripamo-Agary. "I think it is in the best interest of the boys that they lay down their weapons and get themselves organized for the next level of constitutional engagement. And also the fact that they have opportunity to acquire skills and training to earn a more sustainable and secured livelihood."
The government portrays the amnesty as the first step in a process to bring peace to the region. Officials say as many as 10,000 rebels could accept the amnesty deal before the 60-day program ends on October fourth. So far, only a few thousand rebels have committed themselves to the program and fears had emerged that the plan could fall apart following its rejection by MEND.
Koripamo-Agaru tells VOA that the public acceptance of the amnesty by a key rebel commander Ebikobowei Victor Ben popularly known as Boyloaf was a huge victory for the government initiative.
"I have received numerous calls from even MEND members who want to lay down their arms because of what happened on Saturday," said Koripamo-Agaru. "Nobody can write off Boyloaf with the wave of their hand. So it is a victory and it is obviously encouraging a lot of people to come out. So I am very happy."
Nigerian crude exports have fallen by around 40 percent since early 2006 when rebels launched a campaign of sabotage against the Africa's biggest oil and gas industry. Analysts say without a comprehensive development plan for the region, the Niger Delta will remain very unstable.