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Published January 16, 2012, 09:22 AM

Nigeria labor announces suspension of fuel strike

LAGOS, Nigeria (AP) — Unions suspended their nationwide strike on Monday, hours after Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan partially reinstated subsidies to keep gasoline prices low and deployed soldiers in the streets to halt widening demonstrations.

By: JON GAMBRELL, Associated Press

LAGOS, Nigeria (AP) — Unions suspended their nationwide strike on Monday, hours after Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan partially reinstated subsidies to keep gasoline prices low and deployed soldiers in the streets to halt widening demonstrations.

Union leaders described their decision as a victory for labor, allowing its leaders to guide the country's policy on fuel subsidies in the future while having gas prices drop to about $2.27 a gallon (60 cents a liter).

However, many protesters joined the demonstrations with hopes of seeing gas return to its previous price of about $1.70 per gallon (45 cents per liter), while also speaking out against a culture of government corruption in Africa's most populous nation. Deploying soldiers to the streets stopped demonstrators from gathering on Monday. At one point soldiers fired over the heads of marchers. But Jonathan may still have to deal with populist rage that swept the country in recent days, and the use of the military in a nation with a history of military coups stoked immediate controversy.

"This is a clear case of intolerance and shutting of the democratic space against the people of Nigeria which must be condemned by all democracy-loving people around the world," read a statement from the Save Nigeria Group, which has organized massive demonstrations in Lagos.

The Nigeria Labor Congress and the Trade Union Congress told journalists on Monday in Nigeria's capital Abuja they applauded the government's recent promise to explore corruption in the country's oil sector. They described the six-day strike a success.

"We are sure that no government or institution will take Nigerians for granted again," said Abdulwaheed Omar, the president of the Nigeria Labor Congress.

But while Jonathan offered an olive branch to unions with the gas price relief, he used military power to make sure no one protested against the government Monday. In a rare display of military might, soldiers took over major highways and road junctions throughout Lagos, home to 15 million people, and Kano, Nigeria's second-largest city.

In an early Monday morning address aired on state-run television, Jonathan warned that provocateurs were using the gas-price protest to cause instability.

"It has become clear to government and all well-meaning Nigerians that other interests beyond the implementation of the deregulation policy have hijacked the protest. ... These same interests seek to promote discord, anarchy and insecurity to the detriment of public peace," Jonathan said.

Labor organizers had urged workers to stay home on Monday after Jonathan appealed to them over the possibility of insecurity in the country. At the Lagos headquarters of the Nigeria Labor Congress, some 50 protesters gathered anyway. Lawyer Bamidele Aturu led the crowd in chants and cheers, comparing the president to military rulers of the past who used soldiers to suppress dissent.

"It's very clear the revolution has begun!" Aturu shouted. However, those gathered looked warily at passing pickup trucks filled with soldiers.

On Monday, hundreds of people started marching toward Lagos' Ojota neighborhood, where tens of thousands of protesters had gathered in recent days. However, soldiers had already taken positions there overnight, waving away would-be demonstrators. Two military armored personnel carriers were parked near an empty stage.

The crowd passed soldiers who slung their assault rifles over their shoulders, allowing them to pass. But as they drew closer to Ojota, around 20 soldiers arrived in two pickup trucks to cut them off, bayonets affixed to their assault rifles. They told the protesters to go back and some of them began to turn around.

Soldiers fired into the air and tear gassed the crowd to disperse it, leaving protesters running through the stinging gas as gunshots echoed down the highway.

Meanwhile, authorities also targeted some foreign media outlets in Lagos. Officers of the State Security Service, Nigeria's secret police, raided an office compound Monday used by the BBC and CNN, witnesses said. Marilyn Ogar, a secret police spokeswoman, said she had no information about the raid.

The strike began Jan. 9, paralyzing the nation of more than 160 million people. Tens of thousands of people protested in cities across Nigeria. At least 10 people were killed. Red Cross volunteers have treated more than 600 people injured in protests since the strike began, officials said.

Though an oil workers association threatened to cut Nigeria's production of 2.4 million barrels of crude a day, they held off on shutdown onshore and offshore oil fields. Such a shutdown could have shaken oil futures, as Nigeria is the fifth-largest crude supplier to the U.S.

An offshore rig being run for a Chevron Corp. subsidiary near Nigeria's oil-rich southern delta caught fire and officials tried to account for all the workers there, the oil company said. Chevron spokesman Scott Walker said the fire started early Monday morning. There was no indication that the fire was related to Nigeria's unrest.

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Associated Press writers Bashir Adigun and Lekan Oyekanmi in Abuja, Nigeria; Ibrahim Garba in Kano, Nigeria; and Yinka Ibukun in Lagos contributed to this report.

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Jon Gambrell can be reached at www.twitter.com/jongambrellAP.

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