Nigeria strike suspended after fuel price cut

The sudden removal of a fuel subsidy on January 1 more than doubled the pump price of petrol to 150 naira per litre from 65 naira.

Abuja: Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan announced a cut in petrol prices to 97 naira ($0.60) a litre on Monday, a gesture that prompted unions to suspend mass protests to allow further negotiations with the government.

But the main labour unions said strikes that paralysed Africa`s second-largest economy last week would resume pending further talks, and residents of Nigeria`s largest city Lagos reported soldiers in the streets in an apparent security move.

"They are searching vehicles. It looks like they want to maintain law and order," one resident said.

Oil output by Nigeria, Africa`s biggest crude exporter, has not been affected so far by the labour unrest, which began after a fuel subsidy was lifted on Jan. 1, more than doubling the pump price of petrol to 150 naira per litre from 65 naira.

Jonathan met union leaders late on Sunday in search of a compromise to end the strikes but he said later the talks had "yielded no tangible result" and he would pursue a policy of removing subsidies seen as breeding waste and corruption.

"The government will continue to pursue full deregulation of the downstream petroleum sector. However, given the hardships being suffered by Nigerians, and after due consideration and consultations ... the government has approved the reduction of the pump price of petrol," he said in a national broadcast.

Chika Onuegbu, a senior official at Nigeria`s umbrella Trade Union Congress and its main oil union PENGASSAN, said further talks with the government would be held on Monday morning and he hoped for progress that would allow a suspension of strikes.

PENGASSAN previously said it would cut oil production if there was a complete breakdown of labour-government talks.

Workers had suspended strike action over the weekend to give space for talks and allow protesters to rest.

No Oil Cut

Global oil prices were boosted by fears of reduced supplies from Nigeria late last week. A serious production outage would push them sharply higher, traders and analysts say.

Several people were killed in clashes between strikers and police last week and 600 were treated for wounds, according to the International Red Cross.

The government and unions had a first round of talks on Jan. 12 and a second round two days later, with both sides reporting progress but saying that more deliberations were needed.

Unions said they wanted the government to immediately bring the petrol price back down to 65 naira, at which point they would cancel strikes and protests and talks could continue.

But it would be a politically damaging climbdown for the government to slash the pump price back to 65 naira without any assurance of subsidies being removed in the future.

Economists said the subsidy should be dropped because it was wasteful and open to corruption. Protesters have countered that argument by asking the government to work harder to tackle graft and waste before rescinding public benefits.

Jonathan gave approval on Sunday for an investigation. Oil Minister Diezani Alison-Madueke said she had written to the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission inviting the regulator to examine the subsidy procedure.

The state oil company NNPC and fuel regulators have come under fire for a lack of transparency and mismanagement from independent reports, including one by KPMG. Alison-Madueke pledged to review these reports.

Nigeria produces more than 2 million barrels of crude oil a day but decades of graft and mismanagement have forced it to import almost all its needs for refined fuel.

Alison-Madueke said she would meet legislators in the next week to seek progress towards passing a wide-ranging Petroleum Industry Bill (PIB) that has been stuck in parliament for years, costing Nigeria billions of dollars in lost investment.

Africa`s most populous nation holds the world`s seventh largest gas reserves but infrastructure only provides enough power to support a medium-sized European city, meaning most of the country`s 160 million people live without electricity.

Bureau Report
Eleven more killed in Syria despite Arab monitors
Beirut: Eleven people were killed in Syria on Monday in a 10-month-old struggle between President Bashar al-Assad and his foes that a peace plan monitored by Arab observers has failed to quench.

Arab foreign ministers will meet on Sunday to discuss the future of the mission sent last month to check if Syria is abiding by the agreement it accepted on November 2.

The Arab plan required Syria to halt the bloodshed, withdraw the military from cities, free detainees and hold a dialogue.

Hundreds of people have been reported killed in Syria even since the monitors deployed on December 26 as pro-Assad forces try to crush peaceful protests and armed resistance to his rule.

Random gunfire from pro-Assad militiamen killed five people, including a woman, and wounded nine in the restive city of Homs, the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

It said five soldiers were killed when they tried to change sides during a clash with rebels in the northwestern province of Idlib, adding that 15 soldiers had succeeded in defecting.

The state news agency SANA said an "armed terrorist group" had shot dead Brigadier-General Mohammed Abdul-Hamid al-Awad and wounded his driver in the countryside near Damascus.

The latest violence erupted a day after UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told Assad to "stop killing your people."

Assad`s harsh response to the uprising has killed more than 5,000 people, by a UN count. The Syrian authorities say 2,000 members of the security forces have also been killed. The deaths of 32 civilians and soldiers were reported on Sunday.

"Stop Killing Your People"

The head of the Arab monitoring mission is due to report to an Arab League committee on Thursday before Arab foreign ministers gather to consider their next step on Syria.

Qatar, which heads the committee, has suggested Arab troops step in, an idea that is anathema to Damascus and which Arab nations such as Iraq, Lebanon and Algeria are likely to oppose.

The League could also refer Syria to the UN Security Council if it concludes that its own peace effort has failed.

The council has been paralyzed so far because Russia and China oppose any resolution that could lead to UN sanctions or Western military action against Syria.

There is little Western appetite for any Libya-style intervention. The United States, the European Union, Turkey and the Arab League have announced economic sanctions against Syria.

On Sunday Assad proclaimed the latest of several amnesties for "crimes" committed during the uprising and some prisoners were later freed in the presence of Arab monitors in Damascus.

Kinan al-Shami, of the Syrian Revolution Coordination Union, said hundreds of detainees appeared to have been released, but they represented only a fraction of at least 40,000 people he said had been jailed without charge since March, many of whom have been held in secret police buildings or makeshift prisons.

Among those freed, Shami said, was Syrian actor Jalal al-Tawil who was shot and captured while trying to flee to Jordan two weeks ago. He had earlier been beaten in a Damascus protest.

The movement to end more than four decades of Assad family rule began with largely peaceful demonstrations, but after months of violence by the security forces, army deserters and insurgents started to fight back, prompting fears of civil war.

Assad, who retains the support of core military units, is backed by his own Alawite minority as well as some minority Christians and some majority Sunni Muslims who fear chaos, civil war and the rise of Islamist militancy if he is toppled.

The northern commercial city of Aleppo, like central parts of the capital Damascus, has mostly escaped the turmoil, but security forces stormed Aleppo University campus overnight in pursuit of students who staged an anti-Assad protest on Friday.

Activists said dozens of students were beaten in the raid in which students who belong to a pro-Assad militia also took part.

Aleppo residents say big Sunni merchants in the city still support Assad and that the authorities have also recruited Sunni tribesmen from the countryside to patrol the streets.

The president, 46, who appeared in public twice in as many days last week, is eager to show that his people love him.

SANA, the state news agency, reported on Sunday that a 10 km (six mile) long letter, which it billed as the world`s longest, was being written and signed by Syrians across the country as a "message of loyalty to the homeland and its leader."

Bureau Report

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