Nigeria's presidential candidates sign new peace appeal

President Goodluck Jonathan is running against former military ruler Muhammadu Buhari.

FILE: Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan speaks in Parliament in Cape Town on Tuesday, 7 May 2013. Picture: GCIS.

ABUJA - Nigeria's main presidential candidates have signed a "peace accord" ahead of hotly contested elections on Saturday in an effort to prevent religious or ethnic violence, the government said on Thursday.

President Goodluck Jonathan is running against former military ruler Muhammadu Buhari in what looks set to be the closest presidential race since military rule ended in 1999.

"Now that the campaigns have come to an end, we meet today to renew our pledge for peaceful elections. We therefore call on all fellow citizens of our dear country, and our party supporters, to refrain from violence," said the emailed statement, which was signed by the candidates.

In 2011, around 800 people died in Nigeria in post-election violence and Western powers have been pressing both sides not to stoke tensions, with US President Barack Obama issuing a direct appeal for calm this week.

It was the second such accord signed by the election candidates this year, following an initial document released in January. At that stage, elections were set for 14 February, but the vote was subsequently delayed to 28 March because of violence tied to an insurgency by Boko Haram Islamist militants.

Diplomats are especially concerned by the possibility of violence in Bayelsa state should local candidate Jonathan lose his bid for re-election.

The region suffered years of tumult, including attacks on oil infrastructure, with calm only restored following the successful implementation of an amnesty brokered in 2009 with leaders of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta.

Obama earlier this week called on "leaders and candidates to make it clear to their supporters that violence has no place in democratic elections, and that they will not incite, support or engage in any kind of violence".

In a letter to Jonathan, British Prime Minister David Cameron also called for transparent and violence-free elections.

"As Africa's biggest democracy, successful elections in Nigeria are important not only for Nigeria's future, but as a signal to the rest of Africa," Cameron was quoted as saying by the British embassy in Abuja on Thursday.

The embassy added that Cameron was would give a multinational African force $7.4 million to tackle the Boko Haram insurgency in the northeast.

NIGER, CHAD TROOPS PURSUE BOKO HARAM

Troops from Chad and Niger pursued Boko Haram fighters across a northern Nigeria border area on Thursday, driving them out of a village they held there and causing some to flee into Niger, two senior Niger military officers said.

Niger and Chad are participating in a joint offensive along with Nigeria and Cameroon aimed at ending the Nigerian Islamist group's six-year insurgency, which has spilled across Nigeria's borders to threaten regional stability.

A column of troops left the Nigerian town of Damasak, which was retaken from the militants earlier this month, in the morning to capture the Boko Haram-occupied village of Gasheger, the sources said.

A Reuters witness across the border in the nearby Nigerien town of Diffa, which has served as a staging area for the operations, heard explosions around midday as the sources said the coalition troops met resistance from the Islamists.

"We took back Gasheger," one of the officers told Reuters.

During the clashes, Boko Haram fighters fired a mortar that landed in the village of Kalgueri, killing one woman, the sources said.

After being driven from Gasheger, some Boko Haram fighters fled across the Komadougou River into the town of Guesseri in Niger where soldiers from Niger's elite American-trained anti-terrorist unit pursued them.

"More than 100 fighters were in Gasheger. They're now in an area with a lot of trees," the second source said.