, LAGOS, May 25 – Nigeria\’s main rebel group said it destroyed several major oil pipelines in southern Nigeria early Monday in response to a military offensive.
The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) said it had put "out of operation" a major Chevron oil storage facility by destroying the pipelines and flow stations that feed it.
"Fighters from MEND destroyed major trunk lines," the group said in a statement emailed to media.
US oil giant Chevron made no immediate comment but MEND has staged several attacks on international oil facilities in southern Delta state as part of its campaign to get what it calls a fairer distribution of the oil wealth to local people.
Nigeria\’s oil production has been cut by a quarter because of the militant campaign over the past three years.
MEND — which named the affected flow stations as Alero creek, Otunana, Abiteye, Makaraba and Dibi — said its latest attacks were in response to a government offensive over the past 10 days in Delta State.
It said it was "applying the same measure of treatment the impoverished oil bearing communities suffered in the hands of government troops by ensuring huge collateral damage."
Local media have quoted residents fleeing Gbaramatu Kingdom, the main target area of the military operations, as accusing armed forces of indiscriminate bombing of civilians and burning of homes.
The Joint Task Force, the army-police unit deployed in the region, says it is only conducting a "cordon and search" operation and focusing only "on the areas where there are militants and their hideouts where hostgages were being kept".
The JTF says it has released groups of Filipino, Ukranian and Nigerian hostages seized in raids on vessels. Most recently it says it rescued three Filipino seamen on Saturday and a further three on Sunday.
MEND disputed that the three freed on Sunday were rescued.
"The JTF did not free the remaining three hostages as being claimed…we dropped them off at the Oporoza jetty," the group statement said.
MEND and the JTF blame each other for starting the new violence. MEND accuses the armed forces of having launched an unprovoked attack on the camp of an allied armed group while JTF says one of its patrols was fired on my militants.
Gbaramatu Kingdom is accessible only by boat and residents of Warri, the nearest major town, say the army has stopped boat traffic in the area.
Hostage taking is common in the Niger Delta, with several hundred people, most but not all of them linked to the oil industry, kidnapped there in the past three years.
MEND renewed its threat of bringing Nigeria\’s oil industry to a standstill.
"The Joint Task Force has been chasing shadows for the past two weeks and has not achieved any military success. We will continue our cat and mouse tactics with them until oil export ceases completely," the group threatened.
International oil prices have spiked in recent days, partly because of the MEND attacks and the military offensive in Nigeria\’s main oil producing region.
Unrest in the Niger Delta region has reduced Nigeria\’s daily output to 1.76 million barrels compared with 2.6 million barrels in January 2006.
Nigeria has been overtaken by Angola as Africa\’s main oil producer.