June 02, 2007

Nigerian Militants Vow to Halt Attacks

By EDWARD HARRIS
Associated Press Writer


LAGOS, Nigeria - The main militant group responsible for attacks on foreign oil installations in Nigeria's lawless south announced a one-month cease-fire Saturday, giving the new president a chance to resolve the crisis that has helped cause global crude prices to spike.

The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta did not offer to stop kidnapping foreign oil workers, but it released six hostages who had been seized May 1 - four Italians, one American and one Croatian - as a peace offering to the government.

Hours earlier, however, gunmen wearing security force garb abducted four other foreign oil workers from their compound in the southern Niger Delta region's main city without firing a shot.

The group launched its campaign of kidnappings and oil-installation bombings in late 2005, seeking to force the government to give its impoverished region a greater share of oil funds.

In his inaugural speech Tuesday, newly elected President Umaru Yar'Adua called the conflict an urgent matter and asked for a permanent cease-fire to allow for mediation toward a long-term peace.

A spokesman for MEND said Saturday it would suspend its attacks on oil installations for one month, "which we hope the government will take advantage of to ruminate on positive and realistic measures towards a just peace in the delta."

However, the announcement isn't likely to immediately calm the vast southern region where numerous criminal gangs and non-allied militant groups ply the swamps and creeks in gunboats. MEND - the main militant group in the area - also insisted it wasn't ending its struggle.

After the one-month grace period, "we will resume attacks on installations and oil workers in the delta with greater purpose," the MEND spokesman wrote in an e-mail to reporters.

Officials in Yar'Adua's nascent administration were not available for comment.

While the delta region has long been roiled by violence and militant activity, the MEND militants have brought the violence to a new level. Armed with heavy weaponry and schooled in sophisticated military and propaganda tactics, the militants frequently have blown up oil installations and attacked boats carrying oil workers.

Their 18 months of attacks have cut nearly one-third of Nigeria's usual 3 million barrel-per-day production, helping send prices toward all-time highs on international markets. Nigeria is Africa's top crude producer, an OPEC member and a leading exporter of oil to the United States.

Oil prices fell Tuesday after MEND said it was considering Yar'Adua's call for a cease-fire in the southern region. Prices then jumped $1.07 to settle at $65.08 a barrel on Friday.

While former President Olusegun Obasanjo branded the militants criminals and did not mention the region in his farewell speech to the nation last week, Yar'Adua made clear upon taking over that he believed the crisis was one of his stiffest challenges.

More than 200 foreigners have been seized since MEND launched its campaign. Criminal gangs with no obvious political aims also have taken up the practice this year.

In announcing its intention to halt attacks, MEND released the six hostages it admitted holding, saying their release showed "a preparedness to dialogue with a willing government." The Italian Foreign Ministry confirmed the hostages' release, saying they were with officials from their employer, U.S.-based Chevron Corp.

Police said the four foreigners kidnapped Saturday - from Britain, Pakistan, the Netherlands and France - were taken from their compound in the main delta city of Port Harcourt.

The gunmen wore uniforms that resembled those of one of Nigeria's two police forces, and they were able to enter the compound and leave again without firing a shot, said Rivers State Police Commissioner Felix Ogbaudu.

He noted that both uniforms - black for regular officers and green for elite mobile police - are simple in appearance and easily duplicated. The gunmen could not be presumed to be security forces, he said.

Nigeria's security forces, however, are deeply corrupt, and police shake down travelers at checkpoints across the country. Many of the more-sophisticated crimes are presumed by Nigerians to have at least a tacit involvement by police who have been paid to look the other way.

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