- The Washington Times - Monday, April 13, 2009

LAGOS, NIGERIA (AP) - Gunmen riding in 18 boats attacked an oil facility Monday in restive southern Nigeria, commandeering a naval vessel and killing one sailor, a private security official said.

Four other people were injured in the attack on a facility run by Royal Dutch Shell’s local joint venture in Nigeria’s southern Bayelsa state. The official spoke on condition of anonymity due to prohibitions on dealings with the media and had no further details.

Shell officials and Nigerian authorities were not immediately available for comment and the incident could not be immediately confirmed.

The region’s most-powerful militant umbrella group, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, said in an e-mail to The Associated Press that it was not directly involved in the attack. It said its information suggested a higher military death toll and that three government craft were stolen.

The official said the fighters made off with a Defender-class naval vessel, which is a small craft that the Nigerian military uses to patrol the vast and swampy Niger Delta region, where three years of rising violence has trimmed Nigeria’s oil output by about one quarter.

The gunmen frequently launch attacks from the open skiffs that normally carry about 10 fighters. Assaults normally come quickly, with the goal of damaging oil infrastructure or procurement of weaponry from the military unit charged with calming the region. If confirmed, 18 boatloads of fighters would be considered a larger-than-normal operation for the gunmen.

Numerous armed gangs roam the Scotland-sized region where most of Nigeria’s crude is pumped. Militants say they are destroying oil infrastructure to force the federal government to send more of the industry funds it controls to the oil-producing states.

But the government says the militants are common criminals who use a political cover to mask their real activities _ the theft and overseas sale of crude illegally tapped from wells. The militants have stepped up their campaign in recent years, tipping the Niger Delta area into chaos and lawlessness.

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