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Militants in Nigeria's oil heartland said on Thursday they had called off attacks on troops after two bloody gunbattles and would fight only in response to actions by the military.
ABUJA (Reuters) - Militants in Nigeria's oil heartland said on Thursday they had called off attacks on troops after two bloody gunbattles and would fight only in response to actions by the military.
The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) said it had killed 17 soldiers in separate firefights in the Niger Delta on Wednesday but would now hold back.
"This whole thing wasn't supposed to happen this way. We were still in the concluding stages of our plans to completely halt Nigerian exports in one swipe," a MEND spokesman said in an email to Reuters.
"We have been forced now to act ahead of schedule," he said, referring to a flare-up of violence set off on Monday when about 70 militants from a separate group attacked a convoy of boats supplying Royal Dutch Shell oilfields.
The gunmen killed at least three soldiers and abducted 25 Shell contractors who have now all been freed.
"We are watching the Nigerian military and our actions will be governed by measures they choose to take," said the MEND.
The group was behind a wave of attacks on oil installations in February that slashed output. A fifth of Nigeria's production capacity remains blocked.
MEND has been threatening all year to halt Nigerian exports completely but has yet to show it can carry out the threat.
The flare-up came as a shock after a relatively quiet September in the delta, which accounts for all output from the world's eighth-biggest exporter. However, the latest incidents have not affected production.
President Olusegun Obasanjo was due to meet senior army chiefs later on Thursday to discuss the situation in the delta, while a meeting with oil company executives was planned for a later date, a presidential aide said.
Seven expatriate oil workers abducted from a residential compound for contractors to ExxonMobil on Tuesday night were in good health, a diplomat said.
"There has been a demand for a ransom. We're at that stage where the state government is moving toward negotiations," said the envoy from one of the countries whose nationals were seized by gunmen who invaded their compound, killing two guards.
Kidnappings for ransom are common in the Niger Delta and hostages are usually released unharmed after money changes hands.
Unrest in the wetlands region almost the size of England is rooted in poverty, corruption and lawlessness. Most inhabitants have seen few benefits from five decades of oil extraction that has damaged their environment.
Resentment toward the oil industry breeds militancy, but the struggle for control of a lucrative oil smuggling business and the lure of ransoms have also contributed to the violence. The lines between militancy, crime and business are blurred.
Oil workers' union PENGASSAN, which last month staged a strike over insecurity in the delta, accused corrupt officials of fuelling the crisis.
"These kidnappers can't be doing it on their own, without support from a powerful cabal that cuts across state and local governments and even the armed forces," Lumumba Okugbawa, acting secretary general of PENGASSAN, told Reuters by telephone.
(Additional reporting by Tom Ashby)
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