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Thursday, June 25, 1998 Published at 22:08 GMT 23:08 UK

World: Africa

Nigeria frees more prisoners

Abiola: will he be next to get his freedom?

Nigeria's new military leader, General Abdulsalam Abubakar, has ordered the release of 17 more political prisoners.

A statement said those being freed include two opposition politicians, Olisa Agbakoba and Chief Olu Falae.

However, the presumed winner of the annulled 1993 elections, Chief Moshood Abiola, is not among them.

[ image: Obasanjo - calls for further reforms]
Obasanjo - calls for further reforms
Olisa Agbakoba was a prominent human rights lawyer and a leader of the main United Action for Democracy opposition group. He was locked up in May after organising demonstrations against plans for the late General Sani Abacha to stand as the sole candidate in August 1 presidential elections.

Many of those on the list, including Olu Falae, were arrested in connection with a series of bomb blasts last year.

Promising beginning?

Since succeeding General Abacha, General Abubakar has already released nine prominent political detainees, including the former head of state General Obasanjo, and won international praise from both the United States and the United Kingdom.

The BBC Nigeria correspondent says that by releasing political prisoners, the new government is sending out the clear signal that it wants sanctions against Nigeria to be lifted.

But members of the international community and opposition leaders are calling for the introduction of civilian rule and the release of more than 50 political prisoners who are still being detained, including Chief Abiola, who was imprisoned by General Abacha in 1994.

Diplomatic thaw

However, there are already signs of a thaw in Nigeria's diplomatic isolation.

[ image:  ]
A UK foreign office minister, Tony Lloyd, is expected to meet General Abubakar in Abuja on Friday.

The mission will be the first trip to Nigeria by a UK minister since November 1996 when Baroness Chalker went as part of a Commonwealth mission.

On Wednesday, the British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, telephoned General Abubakar on behalf of the European Union, and discussed the issues of the remaining political prisoners, human rights, and the introduction of civilian rule.

The call ended the European community's diplomatic isolation of Nigeria. The country had previously been treated as a diplomatic pariah by the European Union and by the Commonwealth over its human rights record.

Speculation over release

In Nigeria itself, there have been further high-level meetings between the military government and Chief Abiola.

Our correspondent in Lagos says there is widespread speculation that he might be released soon. She says it is thought that the government may be trying to offer him a deal whereby he gives up his presidential mandate in return for his freedom.

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