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Saudi shuts major oil pipeline after Houthi drone attacks

AFP , Tuesday 14 May 2019
Khalid al-Falih
Saudi Energy Minister Khalid al-Falih (Photo: Reuters)
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Drone attacks claimed by Iran-aligned Yemen rebels shut down one of Saudi Arabia's major oil pipelines Tuesday, further ratcheting up Gulf tensions after the mysterious sabotage of several tankers.

The White House however played down tensions, despite days earlier deploying bombers and an assault ship to bolster an aircraft carrier in one of the world's most sensitive waterways as it exchanged barbs with Saudi arch-rival Iran.

"We fundamentally do not seek a war with Iran," Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said a joint news conference with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Sochi.

Saudi Arabia, the world's largest crude exporter and OPEC kingpin, said two pumping stations had been targeted early Tuesday.

They lie on the East West Pipeline, able to pump five million barrels of oil a day from the oil-rich Eastern Province to a Red Sea export terminal.

The announcement came hours after Yemen's Houthi rebels said they had targeted vital installations in Saudi Arabia, which leads a military coalition against them.

Energy Minister Khalid al-Falih said Saudi Aramco had "temporarily shut down" the pipeline to "evaluate its condition" but added that oil production and exports had not been interrupted.

He said the incident was an "act of terrorism... that not only targets the kingdom but also the security of oil supplies to the world and the global economy".

Houthi spokesman Mohammed Abdulsalam wrote on Twitter that the attacks were "a response to the aggressors continuing to commit genocide" against the Yemeni people.

In a statement carried by rebel-run Al-Masirah TV, the Houthis warned of other "unique operations... if the aggressors continue with their crimes and blockade".

"We are capable of executing unique operations on a bigger and wider scale in the hearts of the enemy countries," they said.

'Sabotage attacks' 

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates intervened in the Yemen war to bolster the internationally recognised government's efforts against the Houthis in March 2015.

The 1,200-kilometre (750-mile) pipeline reportedly hit Tuesday serves as an alternative for Saudi crude exports if the strategically vital Strait of Hormuz at the mouth of the Gulf were to be closed.

Iran has repeatedly threatened to close the strait in case of a military confrontation with the US.

The reported pipeline attacks came after the UAE said four ships were damaged in "sabotage attacks" off the emirate of Fujairah, on the mouth of the Hormuz, on Sunday.

Washington and its Gulf allies did not immediately blame Riyadh's regional arch-rival Tehran for the sabotage, but US President Donald Trump has warned Iran against doing anything to harm US interests.

The attacks came after the United States deployed the USS Abraham Lincoln carrier group, an amphibious assault vessel, a Patriot missile battery and B-52 bombers, triggering fears of a possible military confrontation.

However, Trump later denied a New York Times report that he is considering sending 120,000 troops to counter Iran.

"Now, would I do that? Absolutely. But we have not planned for that," Trump told reporters. "Hopefully we're not going to have to plan for that. If we did that, we'd send a hell of a lot more troops than that."

'Exercise restraint' 

A UAE government official said the Saudi oil tankers Al-Marzoqah and Amjad were attacked off the emirate of Fujairah along with the Norwegian tanker Andrea Victory and an Emirati ship, the A. Michel.

No casualties were reported and none of the vessels sank.

The UAE minister of state for foreign affairs, Anwar Gargash, said the Emirates would probe the "deliberate sabotage".

Saudi Arabia said its two tankers suffered "significant damage" but there was no oil spill.

The Andrea Victory's managers, Thome Group, said the ship's hull had been pierced "after being struck by an unknown object on the waterline".

Asked whether the US believed Iran played a role in the attacks, Washington's Iran envoy Brian Hook declined to comment, saying only that US authorities would help the investigation at the request of the UAE.

The United Nations urged all sides to "exercise restraint for the sake of regional peace".

Oil prices initially spiked in response to news of the attacks, but were largely flat in trading on Tuesday.

Fujairah port is the only Emirati terminal located on the Arabian Sea coast, bypassing the Strait of Hormuz through which most Gulf oil exports pass.

Iran and the US have engaged in a war of words in recent weeks since Tehran began to roll back commitments set out in a landmark 2015 nuclear deal with world powers.

Trump withdrew the United States from the deal last year and has unilaterally reimposed tough sanctions on Iran.

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