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VISITING POPE URGES NIGERIA TO FREE POLITICAL DETAINEES

Pope John Paul II on Saturday called on the Nigerian government of military ruler Sani Abacha to consider granting clemency to about 60 political detainees currently held in jail.

A list of detainees' names was handed to Nigerian Foreign Minister Tom Ikimi by Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Vatican secretary of state, just hours into the pontiff's three-day visit.

Chief Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said, "The Nigerian authorities have received this request and affirmed it would be studied and that there would be a response," he said.

Navarro-Valls declined to specify which names were on the list but pointed out that the detainees' names were well known. The names were compiled with the help of the relatives of detainees, international organizations and foreign governments.

Nigeria's most prominent detainees include millionaire businessman Moshood Abiola, believed to have won annulled presidential elections in 1993, and Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo, the former military ruler.

Also held are trade unionists Frank Kokori and Milton Dabibi.

Nigeria's Catholic bishops earlier this month called for the release of detainees and said Nigerians should use the pope's visit as an opportunity to pursue genuine reconciliation.

Amnesty International and other human rights groups say political prisoners in Nigeria number around 200.

The calls for clemency for detainees and for national reconciliation were similar to those made by the 77-year-old pope on his trip to communist Cuba in January.

Three weeks later, the Cuban government freed 299 prisoners, including more than 70 political detainees, and said the decision was in response to the pope's request.

Pope John Paul has wasted no time in Nigeria in getting down to the main issue that is troubling the international community -- abuses of human rights and political freedoms.

In a half-hour meeting at the head of state's residence, he raised the question of human rights with Abacha and the presence of the Catholic Church in half-Muslim Nigeria and in Africa. Some 11 percent of Nigerians are Catholics.

The pope also called on Nigerians to make every effort to guarantee human rights and freedoms and to build national unity in a country of 200 ethnic groups.

"We appreciate your good works, principled stand on issues, compassion for the less privileged and call for peace in the world," Abacha said in his welcome. "May almighty Allah continue to bless you with good health and long life."

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