Nigeria

Ex-Nigeria rebels rethink amnesty with Yar'Adua away

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* Ex-militants to decide Tuesday on amnesty participation

* Yar'Adua's absence has stalled post-amnesty programme

By Austin Ekeinde

PORT HARCOURT, Nigeria, Jan 11 (Reuters) - The prolonged absence of Nigeria's president, who is in hospital overseas, has stalled a federal amnesty programme and forced former rebels to rethink their participation, community leaders said.

Ex-rebel commanders and local activists will decide on Tuesday after a three-day meeting in Bayelsa's capital Yenegoa whether to continue participating in the programme, which aims to rehabilitate former militants in the oil-rich Niger Delta.

The former militant leaders at the meeting include Government Tompolo, Eris Paul, and Ebikabowei Victor Ben, who each at one time commanded hundreds of loyalists.

"Yar'Adua's absence has shut down virtually the entire country, not just the post-amnesty package for the ex-militants," said Chris Ekiyor, president of the ethnic rights group the Ijaw Youth Council.

"We have not been comfortable with contents of that (post-amnesty) package. So right now we are looking into the entire package in our ongoing meeting in Yenegoa," he added.

Thousands of militants last year handed over their weapons in return for Yar'Adua's promise for clemency, monthly stipends, education, job opportunities and investment in the Niger Delta.

OIL PRODUCTION

Violence has subsided in the Niger Delta as a result, allowing some oil companies to repair damaged facilities and boost production to around 2 million barrels per day.

But analysts say the slow progress in implementing the post-amnesty programme threatens to provoke fresh attacks.

Chevron said on Saturday it had been forced to shut down 20,000 barrels per day of crude oil production in Nigeria, a day after security sources said gunmen had attacked a pipeline operated by the U.S. oil major.

The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) said last month it carried out a "warning strike" on a major oil pipeline because of the slow progress in implementing the terms of the amnesty. The country's main militant group said it was reviewing its ceasefire and would make a decision by Jan. 30.

President Yar'Adua's absence has only heightened tensions.

The 58-year-old leader has not been seen or heard publicly since leaving Nigeria on Nov. 23 to receive treatment in hospital in Saudi Arabia for a heart condition.

Vice President Goodluck Jonathan has been representing Yar'Adua at cabinet meetings and official functions but executive powers have not been transferred to him, leading to questions over the legality of decisions made by the government in the president's absence.

(Writing by Randy Fabi; Editing by Peter Millership) (For more Reuters Africa coverage and to have your say on the top issues, visit: http://af.reuters.com/ ) (For Interactive factbox on Nigeria please click on http://uk.reuters.com//news/factbox?fj=20090902150153.js&fn=Poverty%20and%20anger%20in%20Nigeria)

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