Sunday, August 23, 2009

YENAGOA, Nigeria | A top militant leader and 1,000 fighters surrendered to the Nigerian government Saturday, turning in their weapons in the biggest handover since an amnesty began two weeks ago, but other fighters said attacks in the oil-rich Delta region would resume next month regardless.

The unrest has cut Nigeria’s production by a million barrels a day, allowing Angola to overtake it as the continent’s top oil producer. Officials hope the amnesty will allow them to increase production, but commanders in two of the Delta’s three main states have not surrendered.

Ebikabowei Victor Ben, the state commander for the region’s biggest armed group, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), and 25 commanders under his leadership delivered weapons to police overnight. Ben is better known as Gen. Boyloaf.

“We don’t fight for money; we fight for development,” he said Saturday, adding that if the government fails this time, “the next generation to come will do things more bloody than we have.”

The militants formally handed over their weapons in torrential rains to police and officials in Yenagoa, the capital of Bayelsa state.

But a spokesman for MEND announced the group would not participate in the amnesty.

“The charade witnessed in Bayelsa is not an indication of success but that of failure considering that the energy put into that event could have been better used in deliberating on the root issues,” Jomo Gbomo said.

“Many of the boys who have received money today will at best squander it on material things, and what happens next can best be left to the imagination,” he said. “MEND will be compelled to resume with ferocious attacks on the oil industry at the end of our cease-fire on Sept. 15, 2009.”

At the government-sponsored event Saturday, the MEND generals entered the park one by one, surrounded by hundreds of cheering, dancing supporters. Some waved banners or wore matching T-shirts in red or yellow emblazoned with pictures of their commanders.

Two of the 16 speedboats reportedly handed over were on display beside boxes and buckets of bullets, more than 50 machine guns, some 13 rocket launchers, explosives and hundreds of mostly old but serviceable rifles. Piles of camouflage jackets and a couple of old radios sat nearby.

In a speech, Gen. Boyloaf apologized to families that lost members in the struggle, and walked over to the Bayelsa state governor and the two embraced. Gen. Boyloaf took off his camouflage jacket to reveal a white T-shirt with “Peace is golden” written on it.

During a previous amnesty attempt in 2004, the government paid well over the market price for a collection of rusting assault rifles, and the militants who handed in the arms used the cash to buy better weapons.

Timiebi Koripamo-Agary, a spokeswoman for the government’s two-month amnesty campaign, insisted the administration had learned from past mistakes and was not paying for weapons this time.

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