Police close Nigeria's top newspaper

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ARMED policemen closed down Nigeria's most prestigious newspaper yesterday, apparently because it had carried an article suggesting the military regime was divided over whether or not to release the imprisoned president-elect Moshood Abiola.

Mr Abiola is due to appear in court today and the Guardian, the flagship of Nigeria's prodigious press, last week carried a report saying that the military government of General Sanni Abacha was divided over whether to proceed with the treason charges against Mr Abiola or give in to demands by striking oil workers and release him.

The arrival of about 20 armed police at the Guardian offices at midnight on Sunday to close down the newspaper suggests that if there was a split within the government the argument has been won by the hardliners.

The police ordered everyone out of the building but gave no explanation. The Guardian is the third newspaper to be closed by the soldiers. The Punch newspaper and the Concord publishing house owned by Mr Abiola, which prints a daily newspaper and magazines, were closed last year by military decree.

Neither side in the six-week trial of strength between the trade unions, led by the oil workers, and the military regime, seemed to be giving way yesterday but some workers in Lagos went back to work. The strike has brought the city - the country's commercial capital and main port - to a halt but the strikers seem divided over whether to hold out for the release of Mr Abiola and his installation as president or simply his release. The strike never spread to the north or north east where opposition to Mr Abiola, a westerner, remains strong. Mr Abiola won an election organised by the military government in June 1993 and widely regarded as free and fair, but which was then cancelled by the organisers.

In the west and south the lack of fuel has prevented some workers from going to work. Few Nigerians would stay away on an issue of principle for long. Lack of pay means starvation.

The point was illustrated yesterday by a scene reported from Lagos in which people were taking fuel from an oil pipeline which appeared to have been cut, and selling it to passers-by at ten times the official price. Anti-riot police and soldiers sent to secure the pipeline simply joined in and took over the sales.

Outside the oil industry the union leaders appear to have been pushed into the strike by their rank and file. On Sunday the Lagos branch of the Nigeria Labour Congress said it had reached an agreement with the Lagos state government and urged its members to resume work.

(Photograph omitted)