msnbc.com news services
updated 5/26/2008 6:48:15 AM ET 2008-05-26T10:48:15

Nigeria's army confirmed Monday there had been an explosion at an oil facility owned by Royal Dutch Shell, hours after Niger Delta rebels claimed to have blown up a pipeline.

"There was an explosion at a facility owned by Shell near Awoba flow station," said Sagir Musa, military spokesman in Rivers state. "The cause of the explosion has not yet been determined but it is strongly suspected that explosives might have been used by miscreants."

The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta said 11 soldiers were killed in the ensuing gunbattle with security forces. That claim could not immediately be verified.

The militants said a boat carrying members of a military task force sent to police the delta’s vast network of waterways crossed their path after they blew up the pipeline, sparking the fire fight.

The militants said they took the dead troops’ weapons and ammunition, then dynamited and sank the military boat.

If confirmed as definite strikes by the militants, Monday’s attacks would stand as an unusually deadly engagement between militants and security forces. Militants and criminals who ride in outboard-engine powered skiffs operate with near impunity in the shallow and twisting creeks, which the military is prevented from entering by the larger size of their water craft.

Stepped-up activities
The militants mostly avoid the patrols and armed engagement is relatively rare, but they have stepped up their activities since one of their putative leaders was arrested and charged with treason and terrorism.

They say they want the release of their leader and more federal government-controlled oil industry funds for their impoverished region.

A series of pipeline bombings has trimmed oil output here in Africa’s biggest producer, helping send crude prices to historical highs.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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