BAIJI, Iraq (Reuters) - An explosion at a fuel storage tank caused a huge blaze at Iraq’s largest refinery on Monday, inflicting burns on at least 24 workers and killing four others before being extinguished, witnesses said.
An engineer at Baiji refinery, some 180 km north of Baghdad, said the blast had destroyed the plant’s liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) unit, where the fire had broken out, but other operations were unaffected.
A Reuters cameraman at the complex said he saw at least one dead body. Workers were hurriedly evacuated as flames raged through the LPG unit.
A police official in Baiji said three people had been killed in the blaze. The refinery engineer, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said four people were burnt beyond recognition and the engineer in charge of the LPG unit was missing.
Two hours after the blaze erupted, firefighters succeeded in largely extinguishing it, said the engineer, who blamed the fire on an accident.
“There was no sabotage. It was caused by a technical fault,” he said.
He said the LPG unit had been shut down for repairs and was coming back online on Monday when it was rocked by an explosion at 2.30 p.m. (11:30 a.m. British time) and then a second a few minutes later.
The initial explosion was at a storage tank containing 5 million litres of fuel.
“This is the biggest fire I have ever seen at Baiji refinery. We have not had a fire like this before,” said the engineer, employed at the complex since 2003.
At least 10 firefighting trucks were on the scene and more were summoned from nearby towns to help battle the blaze as a fleet of ambulances transported the injured to hospital.
The Baiji refinery is a key transfer point in Iraq’s oil infrastructure, pumping crude oil from the country’s northern oilfields to the Turkish Mediterranean port of Ceyhan. It also refines crude for domestic consumption.
Pumping operations through Iraq’s northern pipeline were halted on December 31 because Ceyhan’s storage tanks were full but resumed on Friday, a shipping source said on Monday.
“We reopened the oil export pipeline to Ceyhan and it is working normally,” Oil Minister Hussain al-Shahristani confirmed to Reuters in Baghdad.
The Baiji refinery has a capacity of 310,000 barrels a day, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, and has been operating at less than full capacity due to power cuts and other problems including fires.
In January 2007, Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Barham Saleh said the country was losing $1.5 billion (760 million pounds) annually from attacks and theft at Baiji, which is vital to the nation’s economy.
The internal pipeline taking crude oil from Iraq’s northern Kirkuk oilfields to the refinery has also been prone to attacks by militants seeking to disrupt the flow of oil.
Additional reporting by Ahmed Rasheed in Baghdad, writing by Ross Colvin, editing by Anthony Barker/James Jukwey
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