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Nigerian president will find fans in United States

Tue., March 28, 2006, midnight

ABUJA, Nigeria – Nigeria’s president heads to Washington on a high note after the resolution of two issues of concern to his U.S. allies – the release Monday of kidnapped oil workers, including two Americans, and his agreement to hand over the continent’s most infamous warlord.

President Olusegun Obasanjo, a former military leader, is now seen as a force for peace and democracy on the world’s poorest continent. He is to meet with President Bush on Wednesday.

Some Nigerians say Obasanjo is a good African but a bad Nigerian who devotes too much time to regional issues. His political ambitions in the conflict-plagued West African nation clash with his international reputation as a champion of democracy, critics say.

On the domestic front, he has failed to control militants who have launched increasing attacks on oil facilities in Nigeria’s oil-rich southern delta. The militants released their last remaining foreign hostages Monday but threatened to continue attacks.

Americans Cody Oswalt and Russell Spell and Briton John Hudspith were released just before dawn after more than five weeks in captivity, government spokesman Abel Oshevire said.

The U.S. applauded Obasanjo’s regional mediation when he offered Liberian warlord Charles Taylor refuge under an agreement that helped end Liberia’s civil war in 2003.

Since then, though, the U.S., the U.N. and others have called for Taylor to be handed over to an international war crimes tribunal.

Taylor is accused of starting civil wars in Liberia and its neighbor, Sierra Leone, that killed some 3 million people and of harboring al-Qaida suicide bombers who attacked the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, killing 12 Americans and more than 200 Africans.

Obasanjo initially resisted calls to surrender Taylor, who has been living in a luxurious government villa in the southern town of Calabar. But Saturday, after Liberia’s new President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf asked that Taylor be handed over for trial, Obasanjo agreed.

The logistics of getting Taylor to Sierra Leone have not been worked out, leading to fears he might escape. Taylor escaped from a U.S. penitentiary in Boston to launch Liberia’s war.

On Monday, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the United States has told Obasanjo that Nigeria must “see that he is conveyed to the international court.”

U.S. Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif., said he hoped Taylor would be before the court before Obasanjo’s meeting with Bush.

“More delay only increases the chances of mischief,” Royce said in a statement.

In their separate conflict, the militants have targeted the oil industry in the world’s eighth largest producer of crude and the fifth largest supplier to the U.S., blowing up oil installations and cutting production by 26 percent.

The White House has said corruption, endemic among Nigerian officials, will be discussed when the presidents meet. Obasanjo promised to root out corruption when he was elected, but he is accused of using the campaign against political opponents.


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