ABUJA, NIGERIA (AP) — Nigerian officials Tuesday ordered the military to suspend attacks in the oil-producing south to allow dialogue with militants whose assaults have slashed oil production, Delta State Gov. Ifeanyi Okowa announced.
The decision came at a meeting of military chiefs, state governors and Petroleum Minister Ibe Kachikwu.
Kachikwu on Monday called for the Niger Delta Avengers group to "sheath their weapons and embrace dialogue." He said the military would continue to patrol waterways but halt other operations. Community leaders have criticized the military campaign in the southern Niger Delta, saying soldiers are brutalizing innocent civilians. Thousands of people have fled the fallout.
The suspension comes days after a new group calling itself the Joint Niger Delta Liberation Force threatened attacks on government and oil company offices in Abuja and Lagos, the commercial capital, to destroy infrastructure "built with our oil and gas monies."
President Muhammadu Buhari canceled a much-publicized visit to the region last week after the Avengers threatened to assassinate him. Buhari, who is in London for treatment for an ear infection, was supposed to launch a decades-delayed cleanup operation. Pollution of agricultural and fishing grounds from careless oil production has destroyed the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of residents and impoverished the region that provides 80 percent of government revenue.
Attacks in recent months ended years of relative peace in the delta and halved Nigeria's oil production to about 1.2 million barrels a day and closed some of the country's biggest oil-exporting terminals. Nigeria has lost its place as Africa's biggest oil producer to Angola.
The militants say they want a bigger share of Nigeria's oil wealth for Niger Delta residents or they will secede. They also object to the government scaling back a 2009 amnesty program which paid 30,000 militants to guard the installations they once attacked.