The Nigerian military has said that it will observe a 60-day ceasefire in the Niger delta.
The army made the statement after four armed groups said they were willing to talk to the government about taking part in a government amnesty offer, Reuter`s reports.
The offer would see them given presidential pardons in return for disarming,
“Security forces will observe a ceasefire and respect all the terms of the amnesty. But if we are attacked, we will respond,” Air Chief Marshall Paul Dike, chief of the defence staff, said.
The military launched a major offensive against against armed groups in the Niger delta last month, bombarding their camps from the air and sea and sending in three battalions of soldiers.
Representatives of four rebel leaders – Ateke Tom, Soboma George, Farah Dagogo and Boy Loaf – told a news conference in Port Harcourt, the capital of Rivers state, that they wanted to meet Umaru Yar’Adua, the president, before signing up to the deal.
“Depending on the outcome of the said meeting, the leaders will then announce when they will begin to hand over the arms and ammunitions in their possession to the federal government,” they said.
Education and rehabilitation
The four groups also called on the government to release Henry Okah, a suspected rebel leader, who is on trial for arms trafficking and treason, Reuters adds.
Olusegun Adeniyi, a presidential spokesman, said Okah, who was arrested in Angola in September 2007 and extradited to Nigeria five months later, could be freed if he took the amnesty offer.
The region’s main armed group, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (Mend), is not among the four that have welcomed the amnesty.
The formal amnesty programme is due to begin on August 6 to give the government time to set up 15 amnesty centres and train personnel for the disarmament, education and rehabilitation of the fighters.
“Between now and 6th of August, discussions are continuing with the leadership of the militants,” Major-General Godwin Abbey, head of the government amnesty panel, said.
The government estimates that as many as 20 000 fighters and criminals could participate before the programme ends on October 4.
Attacks on oil facilities and government targets across the region, as well as a string of kidnappings, have seen crude oil production drop from 2.6 million barrels a day in 2006 to about 1.8 million.
Many of the armed groups argue that they are fighting for a greater share of oil revenue to remian in the Niger delta and complain of the pollution caused by the industry.
Niger president rules by decree after court rejection
Further more, Niger President Mamadou Tandja assumed sweeping powers last week after the West African country’s highest court rejected his latest attempt to push through a referendum on extending his rule.
Tandja announced he would from now on rule by decree, potentially letting him order the vote, which is opposed by foreign donors and regional states, unions and even some former allies in the uranium exporting desert state, Reuters reports.
Tandja is due to step down when his second term in office ends later this year but wants a referendum which could hand him another three years in office.
In a message broadcast on state radio Tandja said he took the decision to rule by decree because it was vital to “continue to safeguard the essential foundation of the nation and to preserve the interests of the people”.
The landlocked former French colony of 15 million people, which stretches to the heart of the Sahara desert, hopes to become the world’s second biggest producer of uranium.
It is one of the poorest countries in the world.
The president’s announcement came hours after the Constitutional Court rejected his request for a review of its earlier ruling that the referendum would be unlawful.
“Without weakness, I will use all my powers under relevant laws and regulations of the republic to find a solution to this stalemate,” Tandja said.
The president dissolved parliament in May, facing opposition to his plan there, and it was unclear whether the parliamentary election scheduled for Aug. 20 would now go ahead.
Tandja’s plans have sparked protests and drawn criticism from foreign donors and regional political bodies, which said they were step backwards and threatened sanctions against Niger.
The president says he needs the time to introduce a fully presidential system of government that will give the president more power and end current blockages in governance.
He also says people want him to complete large infrastructure projects, including a hydro-electric dam, an oil refinery and French energy giant Areva’s 1.2 billion euro ($1.70 billion) Imouraren uranium mine