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SAUDI ARABIA: Houthi drones hit two Aramco plants, sources say oil supplies disrupted

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RIYADH (Reuters) – Yemen’s Iran-aligned Houthi group on Saturday attacked two Saudi Aramco plants at the heart of the kingdom’s oil industry, including the world’s biggest petroleum processing facility, sparking fires in the latest violent flare-up in the Gulf.

Saudi Arabia said it had brought the blazes under control but three sources close to the matter said oil production and exports had been disrupted. One source said 5 million barrels per day of crude production had been impacted — close to half the kingdom’s output — but did not elaborate.

State television said exports were continuing but Aramco has yet to comment since the pre-dawn attack and authorities have not said whether oil production or exports were affected.

The drone strikes on the world’s biggest oil exporter come as Saudi Aramco has accelerated plans for an initial public offering of the state oil giant to as early as this year, and follow earlier cross-border attacks on Saudi oil installations and on oil tankers in Gulf waters. Saturday’s attacks appeared to be the most brazen yet.

Saudi Arabia, leading a Sunni Muslim military coalition that intervened in Yemen in 2015 against the Houthis, has blamed regional rival Shi’ite Iran for previous attacks, which Tehran denies. Riyadh accuses Iran of arming the Houthis, a charge denied by the group and Tehran.

Authorities have not reported on casualties. A Reuters witness nearby said at least 15 ambulances were seen in the area and there was a heavy security presence around Abqaiq.

Abqaiq is 60 km (37 miles) southwest of Aramco’s Dhahran headquarters. The oil processing plant handles crude from the world’s largest conventional oilfield, the supergiant Ghawar, and for export to terminals Ras Tanura – the world’s biggest offshore oil loading facility – and Juaymah. It also pumps westwards across the kingdom to Red Sea export terminals.

Khurais, 190 km (118 miles) further southwest, contains the country’s second largest oilfield.

Many Western employees of Aramco live in Abqaiq. The U.S. Embassy in Riyadh said it was unaware of any injuries to Americans from the attacks.

“These attacks against critical infrastructure endanger civilians, are unacceptable, and sooner or later will result in innocent lives being lost,” the embassy quoted Ambassador John Abizaid as saying in a Twitter post.

FIRE AND SMOKE

The Saudi-led coalition launched air strikes on Yemen’s northern Saada province, a Houthi stronghold, on Saturday, a Reuters witness said. Houthi-run al Masirah TV said the warplanes targeted a military camp north of Saada city.

Hours after the Houthi strike in Abqaiq, the Reuters witness said fire and smoke were still visible but had started dying down. Earlier video footage verified by Reuters showed bright flames and thick plumes of smoke rising toward the dark pre-dawn sky. An emergency vehicle is seen rushing toward the site.

The Saudi interior ministry said Aramco industrial security teams fighting the fires since 0400 (0100 GMT) had managed to control them and stop their spread. It did not identify the source of the drones but said an investigation was underway.

The Houthis’ military spokesman, without providing evidence, said the attacks hit refineries at both sites, which are over 1,000 km (621 miles) from the Yemeni capital Sanaa, and pledged a widening of assaults on Saudi Arabia.

The chief of Iran’s elite Quds Force, Qassem Soleimani praised the Houthis for their resistance in a Twitter post that included the hashtag Aramco.

Tensions in the region have escalated in recent months after the United States quit an international nuclear deal and extended economic sanctions on Iran.

The Houthis hit Shaybah oilfield last month and two oil pumping stations in May. Both attacks caused fires but did not disrupt production.

The coalition has responded with air strikes on Houthi targets in Sanaa and other areas held by the group, which controls most large urban centers in Yemen.

Riyadh’s main coalition partner the United Arab Emirates said in a statement that it supported any measures by the kingdom to safeguard its security following Saturday’s “terrorist and subversive” assault.

The violence is complicating U.N.-led efforts to pave the way for peace talks to end the war, which has killed tens of thousands of people and pushed millions to the brink of famine.

The Western-backed coalition intervened in Yemen to try to restore the internationally recognized government ousted from power in Sanaa by the Houthis in late 2014.

The Yemen conflict is widely seen as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The Houthis say they are fighting a corrupt system.

—— AUTO – GENERATED; Published (Halifax Canada Time AST) on: September 14, 2019 at 11:41AM

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