updated 8/22/2009 6:30:57 PM ET 2009-08-22T22:30:57

A top militant commander and nearly 1,000 of his followers surrendered to the government Saturday, handing over rocket launchers, gunboats, guns and bullets in the biggest move since a government amnesty began two weeks ago.

The militants danced and cheered as they handed over their weapons in torrential rains to police and officials in Yenagoa, the capital of Bayelsa state.

Ebikabowei "Boyloaf" Victor Ben, state commander for the region's biggest armed group, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, and 25 commanders under his leadership delivered weapons to police overnight.

MEND said he is free to surrender but that the group will not take part in the amnesty because it does not address the region's problems.

A red carpet was laid out for dignitaries coming to the event at the peace park, surrounded by covered bleachers. The generals entered the park one-by-one, greeted like football players marching into a stadium.

Boyloaf, wearing a camouflage vest and a white hat that read "Bayelsa Peace Day," spoke to the crowd and apologized to the families who lost lives in the struggle.

"We have kept to our word to follow the part of peace," he said. "The government should on its own part keep to the bargain of promises made."

After giving his speech, Boyloaf walked over to the Bayelsa State governor and the two embraced. He took off his camouflage jacket to reveal a white T-shirt with "Peace" written in gold on it. Boyloaf then handed the camouflage jacket to the uniformed man sitting next to the governor.

Two speedboats were on display Saturday beside sacks of bullets, 50 machine guns, some 13 rocket launchers and nearly 200 rifles. Piles of camouflage jackets and radios sat beside the militants, some wearing matching T-shirts in red or yellow and others civilian clothes. Some also wore pins with the names of their commanders on them.

Timiebi Koripamo-Agary, a spokeswoman for the government's two-month amnesty campaign, said 16 gunboats had already been surrendered.

Militancy in the Delta has increased dramatically in recent years. Attacks and bombings have cut Nigeria's production by around a million barrels of oil per day, allowing Angola to overtake Nigeria as the continent's top oil producer.

On Friday, Nigerian President Umaru Yar'Adua said the amnesty was "a first step" in the government's development agenda for the people of the Niger Delta.

During a previous amnesty attempt in 2004, the government paid well over the market price for a collection of rusting assault rifles; the militant groups who handed the arms used the cash to buy better weapons.

Koripamo-Agary insisted the administration had learned from past mistakes and would not be paying for weapons this time.

"Instead, we are asking the boys what they want — to further their education, learn a trade, or take a microloan for a small business," she said, adding some of the senior militants had expressed an interest in joining the oil and gas sector.

John Oloye, 30, a former militant who lived in a camp in the creeks of the Delta for five years, said he now wanted any kind of work, including welding.

"The government promised us and failed us before. The companies promised us and failed us. If they fail us again, we will go back to normal duty," Oloye told The Associated Press.

He said that he and the other militants had suffered in the creeks, getting sick from drinking the creek water with no doctors available. Oloye said he had not seen his four children in months.

Koripamo-Agary said the men would be given an allowance of $13 a day during the amnesty period, and then the costs of their future education, new business or further training would be picked up by the government, which has set aside roughly $64 million for the payments. Between 7,000 and 11,000 fighters are estimated to be in the creeks, but only a few hundred have taken the amnesty so far.

Militancy has its roots in community protests over pollution that ruined fishing grounds and farms. The protests were ignored by successive governments or met with brutal violence. Communities began to arm themselves at the same time as payments by oil companies helped increase divisions between them, contributing to bloody interethnic battles.

With the advent of democracy in 1999, politicians fanned the flames by giving gangs cash and guns to help rig elections. The weapons were turned on the oil industry when the polls closed.

These days the web of connections between politics, criminal gangs and militant protesters is more tangled and dirty than the muddy roots of the Delta's mangrove swamps. Some gangs are also involved in the lucrative theft of crude oil — known as bunkering. Campaigners say it is impossible for the large, slow "blood oil" barges to move around the creeks without military protection.

It is still unclear how the government will account for the money spent on the amnesty or how long payments will continue. A Freedom of Information bill, which would give Nigerians the right to know how their taxes and oil revenues are spent, has been kicking around the legislature since the end of military rule in 1999. The bill has been rejected twice this year.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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