Nigeria rejects rebel claim it killed Cameroonians

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ABUJA, Nov 15 (Reuters) Nigeria rejected accusations from a rebel group today that its soldiers had killed 21 Cameroonian troops this week and said relations between the two countries were excellent.

The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) said Nigerian soldiers had attacked the Cameroonians on Monday because they were sympathetic to the Nigerian rebels' cause and had turned a blind eye to arms trafficking.

''That is mindless and ridiculous,'' said Nigeria's Director of Defence Information Solomon Giwa-Amu.

''It could not have been a government action from Nigeria because relations between Nigeria and Cameroon are excellent.'' He reiterated that Nigeria was ready to assist in Cameroon's investigation into the killings.

Nigeria agreed to cede the Bakassi peninsula to Cameroon last year in line with an international court judgment and has started a phased handover of the territory to be completed by June next year.

''We subjected ourselves to the court judgment so there is no justification for an isolated military attack on Cameroon,'' Giwa-Amu said.

Cameroon said on Tuesday unknown gunmen, thought to be Nigerian, had killed 21 gendarmes at their post. In defending themselves, the Cameroonians had killed 10 of the attackers.

Cameroon described the attack as ''barbaric'', and said it had damaged the climate of calm. A military source in Yaounde said the attackers were members of a Nigerian militant group.

Giwa-Iwu said it was still not known which group was responsible, but it could have been militants, pirates or an organised criminal gang.

MEND Government, militant and oil industry sources in Nigeria said the raid in Bakassi and a separate attack on a Nigerian oil export terminal hours earlier were the work of MEND.

In its first statement on the subject last night, MEND claimed responsibility for the raid on the Qua Iboe oil terminal in Nigeria's Akwa Ibom state, but denied attacking the Cameroonians and pointed the finger at the Nigerian military.

MEND, a loose organisation of militia groups based in Nigeria's oil producing southern delta, has stepped up attacks in the past month in the wake of the arrest of a factional leader, Henry Okah, in Angola on arms trafficking charges.

MEND said the attack on the oil terminal was aimed at seizing guns, ammunition and outboard engines in preparation for imminent war against Nigerian troops.

The group said the federal government's announcement last week of an increase in 2008 budget funding for security in the Niger Delta was ''tantamount to a declaration of war''.

Analysts say several militia groups in the delta are rearming in anticipation of a new phase of violence because a government sponsored peace drive has stalled and infighting has broken out within militant ranks.

MEND has staged a string of attacks and kidnappings on oil facilities since late 2005, forcing thousands of foreign workers to leave and cutting output from Nigeria, the world's eighth largest exporter, by a fifth.

The group says it is fighting for access to oil revenues by impoverished local communities in the delta that have been neglected by corrupt Nigerian governments for decades.

REUTERS PD BST1636

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