Nigeria oil rebels pledge truce if Carter mediates
By Daniel Flynn
LAGOS (Reuters) - Niger Delta rebels promised on Tuesday to halt attacks on the oil industry if the Nigerian government would allow former U.S. President Jimmy Carter to act as a mediator.
The rebel Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), whose campaign of violence helped lift oil prices to a new record on Tuesday, said Carter had accepted its offer to mediate in the conflict "on the condition that the Nigerian government and any other relevant stake holder invites him."
But the Carter Center, which speaks on behalf of the former president, said it was "premature" to say that Carter had accepted an invitation to mediate.
"The Carter Center's correspondence with MEND emphasized that President Carter would seriously consider undertaking a mission if he were formally invited by all relevant stakeholders in the Niger Delta conflict," said a statement by the center, which is based in Atlanta.
"In addition to MEND, this would include the Federal Government of Nigeria and others whose interests would have to be represented in such a negotiation," it said.
MEND's campaign of violence has cut output in Africa's largest oil producer by around a fifth. It publicly approached Carter earlier this year to act as a negotiator.
"We are ready to call off all hostilities and hold a temporary cease-fire in honor of President Carter should the Nigerian government accept President Carter's initiative," MEND said in an e-mailed statement.
"However, if as expected, the government fails to seize on this new opportunity for peace, our actions will continue to speak volumes beyond the Nigerian shores."
Carter failed in a previous attempt to mediate in the Delta in 1999 and is familiar to many senior members of the different militant factions.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack could not confirm Carter's potential mediation role but said there were already "mechanisms" in place to deal with political grievances in the Niger Delta.
"We believe the Nigerian government should also avail itself to those mechanisms," said McCormack who indicated some irritation with Carter's diplomatic role there.
The State Department strongly opposed Carter's recent meetings with the Palestinian militant group Hamas and advised the former president against seeing them.
The bombing of a Royal Dutch Shell flowstation in the southern Nigerian state of Bayelsa on Saturday -- which caused little damage to oil infrastructure -- marked MEND's fifth strike in just over a month. The attacks are expected to worsen with the trial of militant leader Henry Okah beginning next month, analysts say.
Oil hit a record high of $122 a barrel, lifted by fears of fresh militant strikes in Nigeria, supply concerns in Iran and a forecast from Goldman Sachs that it may hit $200 a barrel due to lagging supply growth.
MEND has accused Nigerian authorities of mistreating Okah, who was deported from Angola in February, and denying him access to his lawyers.
"There is definitely a link to the Henry Okah trial in the resurgent violence," said one security analyst in Nigeria. "How it develops will depend on how they treat Okah and the final decision at the trial."
The militant group, which is split between a number of different factions, dismissed the stalled Niger Delta Summit organized by President Umaru Yar'Adua in an effort to bring peace to the vast, lawless swampland. It said it would not attend a meeting later this year in the capital Abuja.
"The Niger Delta Summit is failing because the government is talking to the wrong people," said Rolake Akinola, senior analyst for West Africa at Control Risks.
"It is a problem of Yar'Adua's leadership style."
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(Additional reporting by Matthew Bigg in Atlanta)
(Editing by Chris Wilson)