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Yemeni rebel drones spark fires at two Saudi Aramco oil facilities

By AFP - Sep 15,2019 - Last updated at Sep 15,2019

Smoke billows from an Aramco oil facility in Abqaiq, about 60km southwest of Dhahran, in Saudi Arabia's eastern province on Saturday (AFP photo)

RIYADH — Drone attacks launched by Yemeni rebels sparked fires at two Saudi Aramco oil facilities on Saturday, in a new escalation that follows a spike in regional tensions with Iran.

Huge palls of smoke rose into the sky after the predawn attacks on Abqaiq and Khurais, two key Aramco facilities in eastern Saudi Arabia as the state-owned giant prepares for a much-anticipated stock listing.

It was the latest in a series of similar raids, highlighting how oil installations in the world's crude exporter are vulnerable to Houthi rebel attacks four years after a Saudi-led coalition launched a military intervention in Yemen.

"At 4:00am (0100 GMT) the industrial security teams of Aramco started dealing with fires at two of its facilities in Abqaiq and Khurais as a result of... drones," the interior ministry said in a statement carried by the official Saudi Press Agency.

“The two fires have been controlled.”

Interior Ministry spokesman Mansour Al Turki told AFP there were no casualties in the attacks in the kingdom’s eastern province.

But the full extent of the damage was not immediately clear as reporters were not allowed near the plants where Saudi authorities swiftly beefed up security.

The Iran-linked rebels launched “a large-scale operation involving 10 drones that targeted refineries in Abqaiq and Khurais in eastern Saudi Arabia”, the group’s Al Masirah television reported.

The UN’s Yemen Envoy Martin Griffiths said he was “extremely concerned” over the latest attacks.

“The recent military escalation is extremely worrying,” he said in a statement, calling on both warring parties for restraint.

The strikes also drew swift condemnation from Riyadh’s Gulf allies, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Kuwait.

In recent months, the Houthi rebels have carried out a spate of cross-border missile and drone attacks targeting Saudi air bases and other facilities in what they say is retaliation for a long-running Riyadh-led bombing campaign on rebel-held areas in Yemen.

Last month, an attack claimed by Houthi rebels sparked a fire at Aramco’s Shaybah natural gas liquefaction facility — close to the Emirati border — but no casualties were reported by the company.

Rebel drones also targeted two oil pumping stations on Saudi Arabia’s key east-west pipeline in May, shutting it down for several days.

 Growing Houthi attacks underscore how Saudi infrastructure, including oil installations, are increasingly vulnerable to the Houthi’s steadily advancing weaponry — from ballistic missiles to unmanned drones.

The kingdom’s crude output was reported to be disrupted by the attacks on the Abqaiq plant — Aramco’s largest oil processing facility — and nearby Khurais, which hosts a large Aramco oilfield.

The Wall Street Journal reported the kingdom was shutting down half of its oil production, which amounts to a loss of about 5 million barrels of oil per day. 

Aramco did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

“The Saudis are using language in their statements to assure customers that the fires are under control,” Samir Madani, co-founder of shipping monitoring website Tanker Trackers, told AFP.

“But there could be supply disruptions if the damage at Abqaiq is extensive.”

The Abqaiq plant, which Aramco says plays a “pivotal role” in its operations, has been targeted by militants in the past.

In an attack claimed by Al Qaeda in February 2006, suicide bombers with explosive-laden vehicles attempted to penetrate the processing plant, killing two security guards.

The two bombers also died in the attack, which failed to breach the compound, authorities reported at the time.


Aramco IPO 


Tensions in the Gulf have further soared since May, with US President Donald Trump calling off air strikes against Iran at the last minute in June after it downed a US drone.

The United States and Saudi Arabia have also blamed Iran for multiple attacks on tankers in the Gulf.

The latest attacks come as Saudi Arabia accelerates preparations for a much-anticipated initial public offering of Aramco, the world’s most profitable company.

The mammoth IPO forms the cornerstone of a reform programme envisaged by the kingdom’s Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, to wean the Saudi economy off its reliance on oil.

Aramco is ready for a two-stage stock market debut including an international listing “very soon”, its CEO Amin Nasser told reporters on Tuesday.

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