Niger Delta militants call off truce with Nigeria

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LAGOS, Nigeria – The main militant group in the oil-rich Niger Delta called off its cease-fire with the government Saturday morning, dealing a potential death blow to a presidential amnesty program aimed at ending violence that has crippled production in the West African nation.

The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta issued a statement saying it would no longer abide by the unconditional Oct. 25 cease-fire President Umaru Yar’Adua had negotiated with the group. The militants warned oil producers with pipelines and personnel working in the creeks and swamps of the Delta that it would wage an “an all-out onslaught” against them.

The MEND “warns all oil companies to halt operations as any operational installation attacked will be burnt to the ground,” the statement read. “Oil companies are responsible for the safety and welfare of their workers and will bear the guilt should any harm come upon their staff in the event of an attack.”

The group added: “Nothing will be spared.”

Militants in the Niger Delta have attacked pipelines, kidnapped petroleum company employees and fought government troops since January 2006. They demand that the federal government send more oil-industry funds to Nigeria’s southern region, which remains poor despite five decades of oil production.

That violence has cut Nigeria’s oil production by about 1 million barrels a day, allowing Angola to surge ahead as Africa’s top oil producer. Still, Nigeria remains the No. 3 crude oil supplier to the U.S., offering the country nearly a million barrels a day in November, according to U.S. government statistics.

MEND announced it had brokered an unconditional cease-fire with the Nigerian government on Oct. 25, but later said it broke the agreement to attack a pipeline Dec. 19. The group said it attacked the line due to the long absence of Yar’Adua, who remains in Saudi Arabia receiving medical treatment for what his doctor described as a heart condition. Militants have questioned whether the amnesty program Yar’Adua promised them — which included cash payments to former fighters — has been frozen in his absence.

Part of the amnesty program included offering the Niger Delta improvements to its decaying roads and government facilities. The militants’ statement Saturday claims nothing has been done so far and said states in northern Nigeria would receive benefits for having a pipeline pass through them.

“This government is hoping it can divide the people of the Delta in order to govern and plunder the Niger Delta,” the statement read. “All who have misled the government and oil companies into such inanity will be put to shame.”

But questions remain about what power the MEND still wields. The amnesty program pulled away some fighters and weapons. The militants said they sanctioned a recent attack on a pipeline owned by a subsidiary of Chevron Corp., but didn’t carry it out. They claimed to have no hand in the kidnapping of three Britons and a Colombian working as contractors on a Royal Dutch Shell PLC project — the first high-profile ransom grab in months.

The Nigerian military also didn’t confirm the pipeline attack the MEND said it carried out Dec. 19.

Still, the militant group struck a defiant tone.

“Acting like a victor over a conquered people, the government rolled out a list of its plans for the Delta which it assumed would end decades of agitation, promising at the same time to deal with all who remained dissatisfied with its lame effort to redress the injustice in the Niger Delta,” their statement read. “It is sufficiently clear at this point in time th

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