Nigerian rebel group denies killing Cameroonians

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ABUJA, Nov 15 (Reuters) A Nigerian rebel group has denied killing 21 Cameroonian soldiers in a cross-border raid on Monday, instead accusing the Nigerian military of being behind the assault, a charge rejected by Nigerian authorities.

Government, militant and oil industry sources in Nigeria say Monday's attack in Bakassi, a formerly disputed region handed back to Cameroon by Nigeria last year, was the work of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND).

MEND, in its first statement on the subject, claimed responsibility for a raid on an oil export terminal in Nigeria earlier the same day but denied attacking the Cameroonians.

''The murders of Cameroonian soldiers in Bakassi were carried out by the Nigerian military because of their perceived sympathy to our cause and their blind eye to a weapons route,'' the group said in an email sent to reporters late yesterday.

Since news of the Bakassi clash filtered out on Tuesday, the Nigerian government and military have said they were not involved and have offered to cooperate with Cameroon to bring the perpetrators to justice.

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 said the attack ''damaged the climate of calm''.

Nigeria and Cameroon argued over the Bakassi peninsula, which has offshore oil deposits, for years until former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo agreed in 2006 to hand over the territory to Cameroon. Since then, tensions had subsided.

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.

In its statement, the group said it was responsible for an attack on Monday, hours before the Bakassi clash, on Nigerian soldiers guarding ExxonMobil's 400,000 barrels per day Qua Iboe oil export terminal in Akwa Ibom state. Output was not affected.

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 RN1457

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