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AMASSOMA, Nigeria, Aug 31 (Reuters) - Thousands of cheering villagers in Nigeria's oil-producing Niger Delta welcomed home on Friday a former state governor who was convicted of stealing public funds.
Diepreye Alamieyeseigha, governor for six years until 2005 when he was impeached for corruption, flew into the government headquarters of Bayelsa state in a helicopter.
Alamieyeseigha had lunch with the current governor, Timipre Sylva, before heading to his native village of Amassoma in a convoy of jeeps.
The former air force officer is one of half a dozen ex-governors who have been charged with embezzlement in Nigeria, the world's eighth largest oil exporter which regularly ranks among the world's most corrupt nations.
He is regarded as an ethnic champion among many members of the Ijaw ethnic group which is in a majority in the delta, a poverty-stricken wetlands region that is home to Africa's largest oil industry.
"As an Ijaw man, today marks my day of freedom because our governor-general is back home," said Pireye Timi, an unemployed youth in Amassoma.
Attacks by militant Ijaw groups over the past 18 months have crippled oil production and they had listed Alamieyeseigha's release as one of their demands.
He pleaded guilty to six counts of embezzlement and money-laundering in July and was sentenced to two years' jail. He was freed immediately after serving 18 months in custody awaiting trial.
Since then, he has been having medical treatment abroad.
"He is returning home to a tumultuous welcome because so many people think he got a raw deal and they identify with his travails," said Oronto Douglas, an Ijaw activist who worked in Alamieyeseigha's government.
President Umaru Yar'Adua, who took office in May, has moved to end the violence in the delta by engaging the main militant groups in talks.
Alamieyeseigha has offered to act as an intermediary in the nascent peace process. He is expected to reach out to several influential militants and try to bring them into the talks.