YENAGOA, Nigeria (Reuters) - Nigeria's military said on Thursday that it had destroyed 13 illegal refineries in the restive Niger Delta oil hub, in an operation in which two soldiers died in clashes with "sea robbers".
Military authorities say there are hundreds of illegal refineries in the region, which process stolen crude from oil company pipelines.
The Nigerian government said last week that it plans to legalise illicit refineries as part of an attempt to bring peace to the production heartland of crude oil, but it is unclear when it will put the plan into action.
Major Abubakar Abdullahi, a military spokesman, said troops "discovered and destroyed 13 illegal refineries" on Wednesday while on patrol in the Iyalama Adama axis of Rivers state. The two soldiers were killed in the Ijawkiri general area, in Rivers state, he said.
Makeshift refineries, usually hidden in oil-soaked clearings, support tens of thousands of people locally.
Nigeria's navy chief has said that 181 illegal refineries were destroyed last year, 748 suspects were arrested, and crude oil and diesel worth 420 billion naira ($1.3 billion) was confiscated. The military shut down around 50 bush refineries in the first few weeks of 2017.
Tensions remain in the Niger Delta where an uneasy peace is being kept as the government holds talks with local communities, including militants whose attacks cut Nigeria's oil production by as much as a third last year.
Crude oil sales provide two-thirds of government revenue.
Africa's largest economy fell into recession in 2016 for the first time in 25 years, largely due to low oil prices and the impact of militant attacks.
($1 = 314.5000 naira)
Reporting by Tife Owolabi,; writing by Alexis Akwagyiram; editing by Susan Fenton