LAGOS (AFP) — The most prominent armed group in oil-rich southern Nigeria on Saturday claimed to have killed at least 29 government soldiers in three early evening attacks.
"In three separate co-ordinated attacks in the states of Bayelsa, Delta and Rivers which began about 7:30 pm (1830 GMT) on Saturday... fighters from the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) carried out reprisals on the military Joint Task Force (JTF)," said the group in an email to the media.
"JTF lost a total of 29 soldiers in the combined assault. We cannot account for those that jumped into the water in panic and drowned," said MEND.
But the commander of JTF Brigadier General Wuyep Rimtip laughed at the claims when contacted for comment shortly after MEND issued its statement.
"I am in touch with all my locations in the swamps and creeks and nobody has heard a gunshot anywhere, how did they kill the soldiers, maybe they are dreaming, they want to boost their morale," Rimtip added.
MEND, which said it lost six fighters, said the attack involved the use of speedboats, general purpose machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades and Soviet made anti-tank missiles.
MEND claims to be fighting for greater control of the region's oil wealth by local people.
But the group has carried out a series of violent attacks on the oil industry and kidnapped hundreds of local and expatriate workers in the restive region since coming to prominence in 2006.
Oil-rich Nigeria has seen a spate of kidnappings of local and foreign workers and relatives of prominent politicians in the past two years, often by criminal gangs seeking a ransom, but sometimes also for political ends.
The unrest has reduced Nigeria's oil output by a quarter, causing it to lose its position as Africa's biggest oil producer to Angola, according to April figures from the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC).