updated 9/13/2008 5:40:40 PM ET 2008-09-13T21:40:40

Militants fought a rare ground battle with Nigerian armed forces in the country's southern oil region Saturday and threatened to launch reprisals on the oil infrastructure in Africa's biggest crude producer.

The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta told The Associated Press in a statement that the Nigerian army and navy raided their positions on Rivers State, pouring in ground troops from landing craft and bombing their fighters from jets and helicopters. They said seven militants were killed.

Lt. Col. Sagir Musa of the military task force charged with calming the restive oil region confirmed an armed engagement Saturday, saying it was a response to an ambush by militants.

Musa, however, said aircraft provided reconnaissance only. He had no details on casualties.

The militants vowed they would retaliate with strikes on Nigeria's oil industry, Africa's largest, and warned foreign workers to leave the southern Niger Delta.

"Oil companies are warned to move out their workers within the next 24 hours because a hurricane is about to sweep through oil installations in the entire Niger Delta region," the statement said.

Battle for oil revenue
The militants said that seven kidnapped expatriate workers — two Britons, two South Africans and a Ukrainian — seized in recent days by unknown gunmen were inside the camp when the attack took place. Twenty-two Nigerian hostages were also at the base and some hostages were injured, the militants said.

The militants are behind nearly three years of rising violence in the southern Niger Delta. They say their deeply impoverished areas have not benefited from five decades of oil production and they are agitating for more federally held oil funds to be sent to the southern oil states.

The government acknowledges the grievances of many in the southern Niger Delta, but denounces the militants as criminals who use their struggle as a cover to make money by stealing crude oil and selling it overseas.

Corrupt government officials, however, also siphon off and sell oil and many state-level politicians are linked to the militants and other armed gangs, whom they hire to rig elections.

The militants said in recent weeks they had attacked a military outpost, killing 29 military personnel in response to alleged killings of civilians. The government denied that any attacks took place. The accounts could not be independently verified.

Nightmare scenario
Still, large-scale battles between the militants and military are rare. While the military often skirmishes with gunmen during chance boat encounters on the region's waterways, it has avoided large-scale attacks on militant camps and other permanent positions.

For their part, the militants generally avoid the armed forces in the region, sticking to the back creeks of the delta and focusing their violence on the oil industry.

Neither side appears to seek a full-blown civil war, although Nigerian media have reported that some elements in the military are pushing for more-robust attacks on militant infrastructure.

Analysts see a wider armed struggle as a nightmare scenario for Nigeria's oil infrastructure. It is largely unguarded and vulnerable to sabotage by militants who frequently destroy pipelines and cut production, sending the price of oil higher in international markets.

Militants said after the battle Saturday that the region was descending into a broader conflict.

"This may be the beginning of a full-scale oil war," the group said in a statement.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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