Nigeria's main militant group on Wednesday declared a 60-day truce in its "oil war" with the government after the release of its leader Henry Okah under an amnesty deal.
Destroyed oil pipelines at the Altas Cove in Lagos following an attack by the Emancipation of Niger Delta on July 13. (AFP Photo)
The second militant truce in less than a year came into effect just 48 hours after the rebels blew up an oil docking harbour in Lagos in their first attack outside the main Niger Delta oil producing region.
The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) has been attacking major oil companies and the army in the south for more than three years demanding a greater share of the oil wealth for local people.
The campaign has cut Nigeria's daily oil production by about a third.
There was no immediate reaction from the government to the truce announcement, which came in a MEND statement: "Starting Wednesday July 15, 2009, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) will be observing a temporary ceasefire for a 60 day period."
"Hopefully, the ceasefire period will create an enabling environment for progressive dialogue," MEND said, adding that the decision was driven by several factors, notably Okah's release on Monday after nearly two years in jail.
MEND fighters staged their audacious attack on Lagos the night before, killing at least five people.
The rebels said they were ready to start negotiations with the government during the truce. But they demanded that an elite government security team be withdrawn from the Niger Delta.
In a mini-cabinet shake-up late on Tuesday, President Umaru Yar'Adua removed Defence Minister Shettima Mustapha. His place was taken by Home Affairs Minister Godwin Abbe.
Abbe, a retired major-general, actively pushed the amnesty offer made to the rebels before the release of Okah. Treason charges against the MEND leader were also dropped.
Okah, 45, a marine engineer was arrested in Angola in September 2007 and was later charged with arms trafficking. The 63 charges he originally faced were reduced to three -- all treason related.
MEND said Okah's release was "a step towards genuine peace and prosperity if Nigeria is open to frank talks and deals sincerely with the root issues" of the militancy.
"A compulsory prelude to talks is the withdrawal of the military Joint Task Forces (JTF) from the Gbaramatu communities and the return of all the displaced persons back to their various homes," the rebel statement said.
Gbaramatu, in Delta State, one of Nigeria's nine oil-producing provinces, has seen some of the fiercest clashes between the military and MEND in recent months.
MEND has claimed responsibility for most of the attacks in the Niger Delta which has forced the world's eighth largest oil exporter to cut production by about a third.
Nigeria, Africa's most populous country, relies on oil for more than 90 percent of its export earnings.
MEND announced an earlier truce on September 21 last year. It ended the ceasefire in January, blaming a government military offensive.
On May 13, the JTF elite force launched a major offensive against the militants. MEND and human rights groups said thousands of people were forced out of their homes in Gbaramatu Kingdom, some of which were set ablaze.
Amnesty International said thousands of villagers had been displaced since the offensive amid heavy clashes between the JTF, which it said used helicopter gunships, and armed groups in Delta State.
After weeks of clashes with government troops, MEND on June 7 announced an "all-out oil war".
MEND has expressed hope that after Okah's release, "hundreds of other men and women languishing in detention over the Niger Delta issue will also be set free".
Okah was the most high-profile militant to take advantage of the amnesty announced last month by President Yar'Adua for rebels in the Delta swamps and creeks. The amnesty lasts until October 4.