Nigeria's most prominent militant group, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, says it killed some 29 government soldiers and lost six of its own members in a series of reprisal attacks against the army on Saturday. The army denies there had been any attack. Gilbert da Costa reports from the Nigerian capital, Abuja.
A spokesman for the Nigerian military in the restive Niger Delta, Lieutenant Colonel Rabe Abubakar, told VOA no fighting involving government forces and oil rebels has been reported in the Niger Delta. He dismissed rebels' claim of having killed 29 soldiers in three separate attacks.
"I have just spoken to the battalion commander in Bayelsa, and he confirmed to be that all his troops are intact. In fact there was no encounter, talk less of some people have died. There was no encounter whatsoever between the militants and the military. They [militants] keep on concocting different lie. All these things are gimmicks towards portraying us to be either weak, or portraying us to be wicked, or incapable of handling the situation in the Niger Delta," he said.
The main rebel group said the attacks were in response to recent killings of unarmed civilians by soldiers in the Delta, a vast wetlands region which has all of Nigeria's oil.
The group said it used fast attack boats, rocket-propelled grenades and anti-tank missiles in the action it called Operation Hunter Hunted.
MEND emerged in early 2006 as the leading group calling for a greater share of Nigeria's oil revenues for the oil producing Niger Delta. It has carried out a series of deadly attacks in recent months.
Violence in the Delta is rooted in poverty, corruption and lawlessness. Most inhabitants have seen few benefits from five decades of oil extraction that has damaged their environment.
Thousands of foreign oil workers have left in the past two years as violence has spiraled, and some industry executives see the situation descending further into lawlessness.
Since the beginning of 2006, attacks by militants in the restive Delta region have cut by 20 percent oil production in Nigeria, Africa's biggest crude producer and the eighth largest world exporter.