Nigeria's leading militant group, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, has declared a unilateral ceasefire in the oil-rich region.  Gilbert da Costa in Abuja reports for VOA.

MEND warned in its statement that it would end the ceasefire if the military attacks its positions again.  It also warned that other groups outside its direct command may not respect the ceasefire.

The group declared war on the oil industry a week ago in what it said was a response to ground and air strikes by the Nigerian military against one of its bases in Rivers state, one of three states that form the core Delta.

MEND said its decision to halt attacks was taken after a plea by community leaders.  One of the region's most influential leaders with strong ties to the rebels, Edwin Clark, has held talks with government officials to resolve the crisis.  Clark told VOA that militancy in the oil-rich region is a legitimate cause of action.

"I call them [militants] freedom fighters because they are fighting for their own survival, for their existence in a country which we call Nigeria," said Clark.

Royal Dutch Shell, whose facilities suffered the most during the siege, declared on Saturday that it would not be able to meet its contractual obligations on oil deliveries due to militant attacks.

Oil and gas accounts for 90 percent of foreign exchange earnings in Nigeria, Africa's most populous nation with 140 million people.

Rebels claim the oil wealth of Nigeria does not sufficiently benefit the local population.