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Nigerian rebel Okah could be freed early this week

12/07/2009 - 19:39

By Hannington Osodo

LAGOS (Reuters) - A top Nigerian rebel leader is expected to be freed early this week, his lawyer said on Sunday, but analysts doubt his release will lead to a significant drop in militant attacks in Africa's biggest oil sector.

Henry Okah, suspected leader of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), agreed to terms of a federal amnesty programme at the weekend and the government has promised to release him after more than a year in detention.

One of Okah's lawyers, who wished not to be identified, said his client would be transferred on Monday to the capital Abuja from the central city of Jos, where he was standing trial for gun-running and treason.

A federal court judge was expected to order his release within 48 hours of his arrival in Abuja, the lawyer said. Nigerian President Umaru Yar'Adua on Friday ordered the militant to be freed without further delay.

Although some militants have said they would lay down their arms if Okah is released, analysts believe violence in the Niger Delta will not subside. Oil theft was a lucrative business in the region and politicians would continue to hire armed gangs to secure power in the run-up to the 2011 elections, analysts said.

"Okah's decision notwithstanding, it is unlikely that the militia attacks in the Delta will abate any time soon," Eurasia analyst Sebastian Spio-Garbrah said in a client note.

"Indeed, it is more likely to escalate into 2010 as intense political jockeying ahead of the 2011 general election begins," Spio-Garbrah said.

MEND, a loose faction of militant groups that began attacking oil facilities in early 2006, has dismissed the amnesty programme in its current form, but was willing to discuss its demands with the government.

The rebel group is responsible for a series of attacks that has cut the OPEC member's production by about 300,000 barrels per day since May, causing a rise in world oil prices.

Rebel leaders, who say they are fighting for a greater share of the region's wealth, say Okah's release is just one of many demands the government must meet before peace can be restored.

On Friday, MEND sabotaged an oil pipeline recently repaired by the U.S. oil firm Chevron and threatened further attacks.

Human Rights Watch criticised the amnesty programme last month, saying it would not end the Niger Delta crisis because it did not punish the politicians that helped fund armed gangs.

Many of the gunmen behind the kidnappings, oil theft and violent crime in the delta were first hired by local politicians to intimidate opponents or fix elections.

(Additional reporting by Felix Onuah in Abuja; Writing by Randy Fabi; editing by Andrew Dobbie)


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