Explosions hit amnesty talks in Nigeria’s oil delta

Source: Reuters

* Militants detonate two bombs outside amnesty talks * Passers-by injured, no reports of serious casualties * Threat of more attacks on oil industry * Potential setback for Acting President Jonathan (Adds comment from Acting President) By Segun Owen WARRI, Nigeria, March 15 (Reuters) – Nigerian militants detonated two car bombs outside a government building in the southern oil city of Warri on Monday where talks were being held about implementing an amnesty programme. The attacks, claimed by the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) militant group, are a major setback for Acting President Goodluck Jonathan as his government also tries to calm ethnic tensions in the centre of the country. Jonathan has made reviving an amnesty programme and restoring peace in the Niger Delta, the heartland of Africa’s biggest oil and gas industry, a top priority since he took over as acting leader in the absence of the nation’s sick president. “I encourage the Niger Delta people and major companies in the region to keep faith with government, as we are determined to reinvigorate post-amnesty plans and programmes for the region,” Jonathan said in a statement. MEND said the explosions were meant to “announce our continued presence” and warned of renewed attacks against the oil industry in the coming days, threatening firms such as French energy giant Total <TOTF.PA> which have so far largely avoided significant strikes on their infrastructure. “It is quite a statement,” said Antony Goldman, a Nigeria expert and head of London-based PM Consulting. “Apparently with timed devices, they have sabotaged not just some lonely, impossible-to-guard pipeline, but an official government building on a relatively high-profile occasion.” The first vehicle exploded on an expressway several hundred metres from Delta State Governor Emmanuel Uduaghan’s compound, the second at the gates of the building. Witnesses said around six passers-by were wounded. There were no reports of deaths. Several hundred police officers and soldiers in armoured vehicles cordoned off Government House as cars burned on the expressway outside. Security was also tightened around the nearby offices of U.S. energy giant Chevron <CVX.N>. Officials from states around the Niger Delta were meeting in Warri to discuss implementing the terms of an amnesty programme launched last year by President Umaru Yar’Adua, under which thousands of gunmen agreed to lay down their weapons. The programme was the most concerted effort yet to end years of unrest which have prevented the OPEC member from producing much above two-thirds of its 3 million barrels per day (bpd) oil capacity, costing it around $1 billion a month in lost revenue. But the amnesty started to stall after Yar’Adua left for three months of medical treatment in Saudi Arabia last November. He returned to Nigeria last month but remains too sick to govern and the programme has made little concrete progress. Monday’s attacks — the first by MEND since the amnesty programme began — did not immediately affect oil prices. “ENDLESS DIALOGUE” The governors of Edo and Abia states, along with representatives from Cross Rivers state and other officials, had been discussing amnesty pledges including development for the region and stipends and re-training for ex-militants. “There was a huge explosion … Every one of us started running helter skelter,” said one state government official shortly after the first blast, asking not to be named. MEND said in a statement it planted three explosive devices which would be detonated remotely in response to comments from Uduaghan in the local media that MEND was “a media creation”. “The deceit of endless dialogue and conferences will no longer be tolerated. The lands of the people of the Niger Delta were stolen by the oil companies and northern Nigeria with the stroke of a pen,” MEND said in its emailed statement. “In the coming days we will carry out a number of attacks against installations and oil companies across the Niger Delta and will spread out to companies such as Total <TOTF.PA> which have been spared in the past,” it said. Activists said there had been complaints for months that an amnesty committee led by Defence Minister Godwin Abbe was not involving local communities and ex-militants closely enough and that Monday’s meeting had only been for government officials. “They are not doing things at the right place and the right time. Programmes are very delayed,” said Jonjon Oyeinfe, ex-leader of the Ijaw Youth Council ethnic rights group who has been involved in negotiations with government for years. “What people need now is how the programme can be implemented on a practical level, not people sitting together jaw-jawing (talking) — what else do they want to discuss?” (For more Reuters Africa coverage and to have your say on the top issues, visit: http://af.reuters.com/ ) (Additional reporting Austin Ekeinde in Port Harcourt, Yinka Ibukun and Tume Ahemba in Lagos, Felix Onuah in Abuja; Writing by Nick Tattersall; Editing by Charles Dick)
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