ABUJA - Up to 15,000 gunmen in Nigeria's oil-producing Niger Delta have surrendered their arms and accepted President Umaru Yar'Adua's unconditional pardon, a senior government official said on Thursday.
The number of participants in the amnesty programme, which expired on Sunday, exceeded government expectations and has already raised questions about how such large numbers of former fighters can be rehabilitated and reintegrated.
Yar'Adua's amnesty offer was one of the most serious attempts yet to stem unrest which has prevented Nigeria from pumping much above two-thirds of its oil capacity, costing it billions of dollars in lost revenue.
But activists and Niger Delta residents fear that the former militants could easily return to the creeks and resume attacks if Abuja fails to quickly find them jobs.
Air Vice Marshal Lucky Ararile, chief amnesty coordinator, said 8,299 gunmen had surrendered nearly 3,000 weapons, including machine guns and rocket launchers, and 18 gunboats as of Tuesday.
The total number of amnesty participants does not include the last-minute surrender by militant leaders Government Tompolo, Farah Dagogo and Ateke Tom over the weekend.
Eventually we will be looking at about 14,000 to 15,000 by the time the men are fully documented. Most of the groups that we know about accepted the amnesty, Ararile told reporters in Nigeria's capital Abuja.
But the government has built only three centres to educate and house the thousands of former gunmen in the Niger Delta.
We will have a total capacity for 2,400 people at a time, but we are talking about 15,000 ex-militants, Ararile said.
The constraint here is the amount of bed space that is available. Each re-orientation training will take a month, so we will take in 2,400 per month.
If the government does not build more centres, former rebels could be waiting as long as six months before starting their re-integration programme.
Government agencies have only received 960 million naira out of the 10.14 billion naira earmarked by parliament for the entire amnesty programme.
Abuja has promised to provide a monthly stipend of 65,000 naira to each former rebel, but payments have not gone that smoothly.
Hundreds of militants in Bayelsa state's capital Yenagoa protested sporadically last month over the government's failure to pay them for handing over their weapons.