updated 4/20/2006 2:05:23 PM ET 2006-04-20T18:05:23

Militants battling for a bigger cut of Nigeria’s oil revenue exploded a car bomb inside a military base, ending weeks of relative calm with a blast that killed at least two people and sent a fireball into the night sky.

The Movement for Emancipation of the Niger Delta claimed responsibility for the blast late Wednesday at a barracks in the southern oil center of Port Harcourt.

The group’s attacks on oil installations in Nigeria, Africa’s leading oil exporter, had already helped drive up world oil prices. This country is the fifth-biggest source of U.S. oil imports.

But the movement had not carried out any major attacks since February and never before used a car bomb. Its previous military targets were small military boats.

Wednesday’s blast sent a fireball towering over Port Harcourt, a major population center and hub of Nigeria’s oil industry.

“We suddenly heard one heavy bang and saw fire shoot up and everybody fled,” said Tekena Lawson, who lives near the barracks.

Brig. Gen. Samuel Salihu, commander of the base, confirmed that the explosion was a car bomb, saying it killed two people and critically injured six others.

Soldiers cordoned off the military barracks on Thursday, with heavily armed troops behind sandbags at the main entrance preventing people from entering.

The group claims to be fighting for the interests of the mainly ethnic Ijaw inhabitants of the Niger Delta, a 40,000-square-mile region of swamps, rivers and creeks that remains deeply impoverished despite sitting on most of Nigeria’s oil resources.

Attacks on oil installations this year in the main oil-producing Niger Delta claimed by the movement have cut more than 20 percent of Nigeria’s daily oil exports of 2.5 million barrels.

The group also seized 13 foreign oil workers in attacks on installations operated by Royal Dutch Shell in January and February. All the hostages were later released unharmed.

President Olusegun Obasanjo has rejected the group’s demands for the release of a jailed militia leader accused of treason and a former governor held on corruption charges. The militants also want Shell to pay $1.5 billion to a group of Ijaw communities for environmental pollution as ordered by parliament. Shell is challenging the order in the courts.

Obasanjo unveiled a plan Tuesday to create thousands of jobs and bring infrastructure development to the region he acknowledges was neglected by successive Nigerian governments.

The militant group rejected the plan, saying it aims to gain local control over the oil that is the mainstay of Nigeria’s economy. It threatened further attacks.

“We wish to restate our warnings to oil companies still operating in the Niger Delta, more especially workers for such companies, to leave while they can,” the movement said.

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