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Nigerian militants claim 29 soldiers dead; military disagrees

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  • Group says killings are in retaliation for deaths of citizens
  • Military disputes claim and says no soldiers have been killed
  • Largest rebel group in Nigeria has targeted foreign oil companies since 2006
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(CNN) -- A Nigerian militant group said it killed 29 Nigerian soldiers and lost six of its fighters Saturday in "reprisals" on soldiers for the military's killings of citizens. The military rejected the claim and said no soldiers were killed.

The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta issued an e-mail statement saying it conducted "separate coordinated attacks" in three southern Nigerian states against members of the military's Joint Task Force.

The actions -- conducted in the states of Bayelsa, Delta and Rivers -- were "reprisals on the military Joint Task Force responsible for the killings of men, women and children from their so-called 'warning shots' in the inland waterways to punitive expeditions on oil-bearing communities.

"From our count, the predominantly ethnic northern JTF lost a total of 29 soldiers in the combined assault. We can not account for those that jumped into the water in panic and drowned. We lost six of our gallant fighters," the message said.

Brig. Gen. Yusuf Mohammed, director at Nigeria's defense headquarters, said the claim is a lie.

"No soldiers were killed," he said.

MEND is the largest rebel group in Nigeria and has targeted foreign oil companies since 2006. It has bombed pipelines and kidnapped hundreds of foreign oil workers, typically releasing them unharmed, sometimes after receiving a ransom.

MEND hopes to secure a greater share of oil wealth for people in the delta, where more than 70 percent of the population lives on less than a dollar a day. It called its action Operation Hunter Hunted.

It said it used fast-attack speedboats, general-purpose machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades and "the deadly Soviet-made anti-tank missiles at close range combat."

The group encouraged journalists to visit the site of the battles "to witness the wreck of gunboats which were still burning when we left, to forestall any denial by the military."

It said the precise locations are "Odiama creek in Bayelsa, Opia river in Delta, and the confluence of Bonny and Andonni river in Rivers state."

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