Community elders in Nigeria's restive oil-producing Niger Delta have agreed to join peace talks due next month but are sceptical about the government's choice of mediator, the country's vice-president said on Monday.
Attacks on oil installations in the delta have cut Nigeria's oil output by a fifth since 2006, helping drive up oil prices and putting pressure on the government to find a solution.
Vice-President Goodluck Jonathan, a native of the delta who is charged with organising the peace talks, held closed-door meetings in the capital Abuja at the weekend with elders and state governors.
"After lengthy deliberations, the Niger Delta leaders agreed to a summit," his office said in a statement.
The statement said the leaders had argued that the choice of Ibrahim Gambari -- a former Nigerian foreign minister who is a special adviser to U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon -- to chair the steering committee risked scuttling the meeting.
The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), the region's main militant group, has said it will not attend the meeting and has rejected Gambari's involvement. Other groups have also questioned the choice.
Gambari was Nigeria's envoy to the United Nations in 1995 when writer Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other activists were hanged by the military government of General Sani Abacha after leading protests against international oil companies.
His critics in the delta say he defended Abacha's actions in the face of international condemnation at the time of Saro-Wiwa's execution and as a result he is distrusted by local communities.
Jonathan said in his statement: "We believe Gambari carries with him the United Nations. More so, the chairman is meant to moderate and not to override, and there are other skilled professionals in the steering committee."
President Umaru Yar'Adua said this month the peace talks, delayed several times, would be held in July but Gambari has indicated he wants some time to prepare.
He has said he will meet the militants to try to secure a 90-day truce as a first step towards formal talks.
Last Mod: 01 Temmuz 2008, 18:15