By Austin Ekeinde and Tife Owolabi
PORT HARCOURT, Nigeria (Reuters) - Nigeria's military has named seven people it says were behind an attack on an oil pipeline belonging to Italy's Eni on Saturday, and denied a claim that a former separatist militia in the Niger Delta was responsible.
A statement purporting to be from the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) claimed responsibility, but Nigeria's joint military task force (JTF) said the Eni attack was the work of criminal gangs masquerading as MEND.
The explosion on Eni's Nembe-Brass pipeline in Bayelsa state shut down a route that carries some 4,000 barrels of oil equivalent a day.
"The Joint Task Force have identified the following as the brains behind the dastardly act," a JTF spokesman said on Monday, listing the seven. He did not say what action the army planned to take against them.
Reuters contacted two of those on the military's list. Both denied involvement.
President Goodluck Jonathan can ill afford a flare-up of violence in his home state as he struggles to cope with almost daily attacks by radical Islamist sect Boko Haram in the north.
Some analysts suspect that regional power struggles ahead of an acrimonious election for the governorship of Bayelsa on February 11 may be the root cause of the attack.
One of those accused by the military told Reuters the blast may have been the work of youths angry at being excluded from a lucrative amnesty for thousands of militants who gave up their weapons in exchange for training schemes and stipends.
"The truth of the matter is that the boys are angry and you know an angry man is the devil's workshop," said Para Ekiyes.
False threats at oil installations, purporting to be from MEND, have been sent in the past, but gangs stealing oil for illicit refining and sale are more usually behind attacks.
At the height of their rebellion last decade, MEND and other rebel groups cut Nigeria's oil output by more than a third until they ceased their campaign under an amnesty agreement in 2009.
(Writing by Tim Cocks; Editing by Ben Harding)