Mend names mediation team
Lagos - The main militant group in Nigeria's oil-producing Niger Delta on Tuesday named a team of mediators to negotiate with the government over disarmament but said the amnesty process "lacked integrity".
The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (Mend) named a team including Nobel Prize-winning writer Wole Soyinka and two retired senior military officials who it said had volunteered to act as mediators on its behalf.
"These eminent persons will be known as the Aaron Team and have our mandate to oversee a transparent and proper Mend disarmament process," the group said in an emailed statement.
"The Mend disarmament process will only come after the root causes of militancy and agitation in the Niger Delta have been addressed by the Nigerian government," it said.
But following a meeting between President Umaru Yar'Adua, the governors of the main states in the Niger Delta, and security chiefs, the government repeated its position that militants must lay down weapons before any talks could be held.
"Mend is not recognised by the federal government as the spokesperson for the militants, that is if they exist at all physically," Defence Minister and chairman of a presidential amnesty committee Godwin Abbe told reporters after the meeting.
"If Mend decides to test the will of government and choose to threaten the very existent of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, the government is prepared to express the sovereignty of Nigeria in all its ramifications," he said.
Yar'Adua offered an unconditional pardon in June to all Niger Delta gunmen who laid down their weapons.
The offer was one of the most serious attempts yet to stem unrest which has prevented Nigeria from pumping much above two thirds of its oil capacity, costing it billions of dollars a year in lost revenue.
Mend on Tuesday warned Chinese oil firms not to invest in the impoverished Niger Delta until peace is achieved after officials said Nigeria was in talks with Beijing about stakes in some of its biggest oil blocks.
Presidential adviser Timi Alaibe said this month that 6 000 gunmen had signed up for the amnesty.
But militant leaders including Ateke Tom and Government Tompolo, who command thousands of gunmen in the region and have links to Mend, have yet to surrender and want the amnesty deadline pushed back to allow dialogue on demands including a partial military withdrawal.
The government has denied their request.
"If there are other militants who are still in doubt as to the sincerity of government (I urge them) to make use of this opportunity by embracing the amnesty because after October 4 of the amnesty terminates and there will be no extension," Abbe said.
He said those fighters who had disarmed would be gathered in camps where their details would be documented before they were assigned to retraining programmes.