PORT HARCOURT, Nigeria (AP) – A car bomb exploded outside a state government building in Nigeria’s southern oil hub Saturday, marking the first targeting of government installations by a militant group that has previously focused attacks on foreign oil companies.

The blast was the latest in a spree of assaults aimed at disrupting oil operations in the Niger River delta. Car bombs hit two foreign compounds Monday, gunmen killed three guards at two other facilities Thursday and a water pipeline to a refinery was reported sabotaged late Friday.

As Africa’s largest oil producer, Nigeria has seen its crude output cut by a quarter this year from attacks and kidnappings by criminal gangs seeking payoffs and militants demanding more political power and income for the people of the delta.

The explosion at midday Saturday demolished part of a fence surrounding a building that houses offices of the Rivers State governor and other agencies.

Shards of steel from the shattered vehicle pierced a nearby shipping container, but caused no injuries, said Port Harcourt Deputy Gov. Gabriel Tony, who was inside when the bomb exploded.

One of the main militant groups, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, claimed responsibility for the bombing in an e-mail to The Associated Press. The group, which had warned in an earlier e-mail that it planned two blasts, said a second bomb malfunctioned.

The incident was the first time the group, known as MEND, directly attacked a government building. It previously pursued its campaign to pressure the government into concessions by striking at oil installations and personnel.

Sent from an e-mail address used by MEND, the group’s statement said it staged the bombing because the region’s governors and other political figures “acted against the interest of the people of the Niger delta, sabotaging all efforts at resource control for selfish reasons.”

“We will henceforth carry out attacks against these traitors in addition to attacks against oil installations,” it said.

MEND has repeatedly said it is fighting for a larger share of oil revenue to be funneled into the impoverished Niger delta.

While producing hundreds of billions of dollars worth of oil, the wetland region about the size of Scotland has no reliable electricity, few good roads and little clean water. In contrast, the new government building targeted Saturday has marble floors, plasma screen TVs and a parking lot full of luxury cars.

Corruption and inequality feed widespread frustration and anger in the delta, but some question whether violence is strongly supported among the people that MEND says it is trying to help.

“The problems of the Niger delta cannot be solved by throwing bombs. Such an action will not get people’s sympathy,” said Patterson Ogun, a political activist in Port Harcourt.

He said the government is more likely to crack down if MEND starts attacking government facilities rather than the foreign oil industry.

MEND also claimed responsibility for the two bombings last Monday. And it holds four foreign oil workers hostage, saying it will release them in exchange for a former militant leader and an ex-state governor who have been jailed by the government pending trial.

While MEND insists it has no political affiliation, many of the delta’s violent groups are linked to local politicians who use them as hired thugs to intimidate opponents when they aren’t attacking the oil industry.

Both political and oil-related violence have increased with the approach of April’s local, state and presidential elections.

Companies have started to react. Shell and several oil service companies began evacuating all dependents of foreign employees from the region this week, citing the deteriorating security situation following the car bombs.

Associated Press writer Katharine Houreld in Lagos, Nigeria, contributed to this report.

AP-ES-12-23-06 1456EST

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