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LAGOS (Reuters) - Nigerian militants said on Saturday they had carried out their first attack on an oil pipeline since an amnesty offer because the absence of President Umaru Yar'Adua was delaying peace talks.
The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) said its fighters, armed with rocket launchers and machine guns, carried out a "warning strike" overnight on a Royal Dutch Shell or Chevron pipeline in Abonemma, Rivers state.
There was no independent confirmation of the incident.
The military joint taskforce (JTF), which polices the Niger Delta, said it could not immediately verify the attack. A Shell spokesperson and security contractors working in the oil industry said they had received no reports of a pipeline strike.
If confirmed, the attack would be a severe blow to peace efforts by Yar'Adua's administration, which has pledged to spend billions of dollars developing the region after thousands of gunmen accepted a presidential amnesty which ended in October.
Attacks by MEND on Africa's biggest oil and gas industry in the past three years have prevented the OPEC member from producing much above two-thirds of its capacity, costing it about $1 billion a month in lost revenues.
The instability has at times helped push up world oil prices.
On Saturday, MEND accused the government of using the ill health of Yar'Adua, who has been in Saudi Arabia for more than three weeks receiving treatment for a heart condition, to stall negotiations promised as part of the amnesty programme.
"While the Nigerian government has conveniently tied the advancement of talks on the demands of this group to a sick president, it has not tied the repair of pipelines, exploitation of oil and gas as well as the deployment and re-tooling of troops in the region to the president's health," it said.
"A situation where the future of the Niger Delta is tied to the health and well-being of one man is unacceptable," it said in an e-mailed statement.
The group said it would review an indefinite ceasefire called on October 25 within 30 days.
Government officials have said oil production is starting to pick up again and contractors have been able to start repairing damaged infrastructure since the amnesty, but security analysts have cautioned that the peace is fragile.
Military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Timothy Antigha said: "If this act of unpatriotism is confirmed to be true, at a time the federal government is doing its utmost to consolidate on the gains of the amnesty programme, then the criminals behind the act are enemies of the Niger Delta and indeed Nigeria."
MEND was the main umbrella militant group responsible for some of the region's biggest attacks in recent years.
The rebel group was severely weakened after its senior field commanders and thousands of others accepted clemency and disarmed, but oil infrastructure in the Niger Delta is extremely exposed and it takes little to launch an opportunistic attack.
"To damage a pipeline just takes one youth who is able to swim and carry a beer bottle that is filled with sand and petrol. It does not require sophistication," Emmanuel Uduaghan, governor of Delta state also in the Niger Delta, said 10 days ago while commenting on the amnesty programme.