, LAGOS, May 18 – Nigeria\’s main armed group said on Monday it has ordered the blockade of key channels for oil vessels in order to further hurt the country\’s oil sector, but the military urged oil firms to ignore the threat.
"We have ordered the blockade of key waterway channels to oil industry vessels both for the export of crude and gas and importation of refined petroleum products," the Movement for the Emancipation of Niger Delta (MEND) said in a statement.
"This means vessels now ply such routes at their risk," it said.
But the Nigerian military urged oil firms and vessels operating in the volatile region to ignore the threat.
"It\’s mere propaganda. They don\’t have the capacity to block the waterways. Our troops are on ground to prevent any blockage," Colonel Rabe Abubakar told AFP.
"Local and foreign oil vessels and oil firms should go about their lawful duties without fear," he added.
There was no immediate reaction from oil or shipping companies.
Abubakar said Monday government troops had rescued four Ukrainians abducted last week in the restive region.
He gave the names of the released hostages as Ponomarev Elman, Mik Hailer, Stroer Roman and Vinogiador Mikael.
"These men have been doing business in Nigeria since 1993," he said, adding that the Ukrainians were in the fish supply business.
No group has claimed responsibility for the incident.
Oil prices turned higher Monday, rising above 57 dollars as traders kept close watch on the situation in Nigeria.
New York\’s main futures contract, light sweet crude for delivery in June, gained 68 cents to 57.02 dollars a barrel.
Brent North Sea crude for July rose 69 cents to 56.67 dollars.
"An escalation of violence in Nigeria is providing support (for) prices," said Dave Ernsberger, senior editorial director for Asia at energy information company Platts.
Nigerian troops launched a military operation at the end of last week. Over the weekend they freed 13 hostages, including nine Filipino sailors seized in a separate incident.
MEND, which claims to be fighting for a greater share of Nigeria\’s oil wealth for local people, last week said a group allied to it attacked two ships and captured the Filipino crew.
The abduction of the Ukrainians seems to have been a third incident.
The group also said it had sabotaged two recently repaired oil pipelines at the weekend and vowed to destroy others.
MEND accused Nigerian troops of "indiscriminate use of missiles and bombs on several defenseless Ijaw communities in Delta state."
"This is the height of cowardice," it added.