Nigeria militants start peace talks with president

Nigeria’s main militant group in the oil-rich Delta region said Sunday that it had started formal peace talks with the country’s president for the first time since it declared an indefinite cease-fire last month.

The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta called Saturday’s dialogue with President Umaru Yar’Adua useful.

“This meeting heralds the beginning of serious, meaningful dialogue between MEND and the Nigerian government to deal with and resolve root issues that have long been swept under the carpet,” militant group spokesman Jomo Gbomo said in a statement Sunday.

The president’s spokesman, Olusegun Adeniyi, said Saturday that Yar’Adua met with a group of negotiators “in continuation of his efforts to find lasting solution to the problem in the Niger Delta and following on his earlier promise to meet with any individual or groups in that direction.”

The group had declared an indefinite cease-fire on Oct. 25 after a meeting between the Nigerian President and its longtime leader, Henry Okah. Gbomo had said that after the meeting, Okah had “indicated the willingness of the government to negotiate” with the militant group, which then formed a team to negotiate, Gbomo said.

Gbomo said Sunday the negotiating team that met with the president included four men. Okah and another field commander, Farah Dagogo, sat in the meeting as observers, he said.

Attacks by the militant group and unrest in the Delta region had cut Nigeria’s oil production by about a million barrels a day, allowing Angola to overtake it as Africa’s top oil producer.

The group’s key commanders, Dagogo, Government Tompolo, Ateke Tom and Ebikabowei Victor Ben, are among more than 8,000 militants who surrendered their arms in the government’s amnesty program, which ended Oct. 4.

The militants say they are fighting to force the federal government to send more oil revenue to the southern region that remains poor despite five decades of oil production.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.