Nigerian militants holding foreign oil workers said on Saturday they killed three soldiers in an encounter with government troops in the southern oil-rich Niger Delta.
"We wish to confirm an incident involving a patrol boat of the Nigerian army and one of our patrols in Soku area on Thursday, March 23, 2006. We confirm that 3 soldiers were killed in this encounter," the ethnic Ijaw militants said in an email statement.
The militants belonging to the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) said they captured "the military patrol boat and a sizable quantity of weapons and ammunition" during the encounter.
The Nigerian army however refused to confirm that any of its men had been killed. Also, there are reports from the remote Soku area in the delta that one soldier was killed and two kidnapped by militants.
The militants in the statement reiterated threats of more attacks on oil facilities and hostage-takings in the delta, where about 20 million locals live in abject poverty, despite its huge oil wealth.
"In response to the Nigerian governments demand for an unconditional release of the hostages, our units have been directed to capture more expatriates across the Niger Delta," they said.
"The attacks will resume in earnest and the three hostages in our custody as well as those we will capture in the next few days will not be released until our conditions are met."
Militants in the delta, led by the MEND, have staged a series of attacks on oil facilities and abducted 13 foreign oil workers in the past four months, forcing Africa's biggest oil exporter to cut output by about 630,000 barrels per day, or a quarter.
Ten of the oil hostages were later released but three Westerners, two Americans and one Briton, were still being held by the MEND.
The group is insisting on the demilitarization of the delta as a condition for the release and the ceasefire. It also vows not to compromise on its demands for the release of two ethnic Ijaw leaders, payment of 1.5-billion-U.S. dollar compensation to Ijaw communities affected by Shell spillages.