updated 6/4/2004 4:57:45 PM ET 2004-06-04T20:57:45

Soldiers in gunboats clashed with ethnic militants in the rivers of Nigeria’s oil delta Friday. Militants and villagers claimed that dozens of fighters and civilians were killed, but a navy spokesman denied that anyone had been killed or even injured.

Residents of Port Harcourt, the oil-rich Niger Delta’s main city, which is several miles from where the clashes occurred, reported hearing predawn gunfire at the time of the attack.

Hundreds of soldiers and police have deployed to the nearby villages of Ogbakiri, Buguma and Tombia since last week, apparently to stem months of fighting between two rival ethnic Ijaw militant factions.

Villagers in Oduoha said they woke to gunfire before dawn.

Community leader Lloyd Eyime said he went outside his house and saw soldiers in gun-mounted speedboats firing upon his riverside community.

“They have been burning houses and shooting at people, both young and elderly,” Eyime said.

Residents fled into mangrove swamps and dense bush, he said.

When Eyime returned, he said, he found about 30 bodies lying about the otherwise abandoned village.

“Right now, where I’m hiding, I can see flames from one of my cars that was set ablaze by the soldiers. As I’m talking to you, I don’t even know the whereabouts of my wife and children,” he told The Associated Press by telephone.

Kenneth Etu, a village elder from Ogbakiri, said he saw 15 dead bodies.

“We were sleeping, and we heard shooting,” he said. “Everyone was running.”

Dokubo Asari, one of the two feuding ethnic Ijaw commanders involved, said his men were fighting back.

“We shot at them, and one of their gunboats sank,” Asari said.

Navy official: Nothing going on
A senior navy official in Port Harcourt denied that there were any casualties. Most villagers deserted their communities during fighting before security force members began arriving, he said.

“We’ve been sending troops there since last week. They heard we were coming, and they deserted towns and villages. There has been no killings. Everything is quiet,” the navy officer said on condition that he not be identified.

Nigeria’s military regularly plays down ethnic, political and religious violence in a bid to stem retaliatory attacks. On two occasions — in 1999 and 2001 — authorities denied army massacres of hundreds of civilians until witness accounts made them indisputable.

Political, religious and ethnic unrest has killed more than 10,000 people since President Olusegun Obasanjo was elected in 1999, ending 15 years of brutal military rule.

The clash on the eastern side of the oil-rich Niger Delta appeared unrelated to ethnic bloodshed pitting ethnic Ijaw and Itsekiri militants in the western delta. Since last year, that fighting has killed hundreds of people and shut wells accounting for 7 percent to 25 percent of Nigeria’s daily production.

Ijaws and Itsekiris pledged peace Tuesday, although tensions remain high, and oil companies have been hesitant to return to facilities abandoned since last year.

Nigeria is the world’s seventh-largest oil exporter and the fifth-largest source of U.S. oil imports.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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