Nigerian oil delta rebel detained in Angola-wife

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LAGOS, Sep 22 (Reuters) The factional leader in a powerful Nigerian rebel group in the oil-producing Niger Delta is being detained in Angola on arms trafficking charges, his wife told Reuters today.

The arrest on September. 3 of Henry Okah, who heads a faction of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), is a blow to peace talks between militants who have crippled Africa's largest oil industry and the new government of President Umaru Yar'Adua.

''He was boarding a plane from Angola and two days later I got a call saying he was detained for money-laundering and arms trafficking,'' Azuka Okah, his wife, told Reuters from their home in Johannesburg.

She said she suspected the Nigerian government was behind the arrest and thought Abuja was trying to weaken him. Angolan and Nigerian officials have declined to comment on the arrest.

Okah's MEND staged a series of bombings of oil facilities and kidnapping of foreign workers from late 2005 to early this year, but has mostly observed a ceasefire since Yar'Adua took office in May to allow talks to go ahead.

Azuka Okah said her husband, who also uses the name Jomo Gbomo, was in Angola to inspect a ship he was hoping to buy and was on his way back to South Africa when he was arrested.

Okah's MEND first appeared at the end of 2005 and said it was fighting against decades of neglect and oppression in the Niger Delta, a vast wetlands region which pumps more than 2 million barrels of oil per day to Western markets.

The group split into two factions late last year.

Okah's forces have mostly observed a ceasefire since the end of May but he has refused to join the peace talks and continued to make threats and predict all-out civil war in the delta.

Okah's associates in the underworld of the delta's largest city of Port Harcourt fought running street battles with security forces for several days last month.

Oyeinfie Jonjon, a delta activist who is involved in talks with Abuja, said Okah's arrest was a sign of insincerity by the Nigerian government and would lead to more violence.

''The federal government should not contradict themselves. They are deliberately setting hurdles to put negotiations in disarray,'' he said.

He said he expected Nigeria to seek his extradition.

The federal government announced last week it would give amnesty to a number of militant leaders to allow them to participate in the peace talks.

REUTERS AK PM0255

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