Iraq blames coalition helicopter for refinery fire

BAGHDAD – Iraq’s oil minister said a helicopter from the U.S.-led coalition caused a blaze on Tuesday that shut the major Shuaiba refinery near the southern oil hub of Basra, but an industry official blamed a mortar attack.

Spokesmen for the British and U.S. military denied any coalition helicopters had been involved in the incident.

An official at the state-run Southern Oil Company said the refinery had been closed as a precaution after the fire damaged the liquid petroleum gas and fuel refining units. The facility could come back online within two days.

Eight to 10 workers had received minor burns in the fire, which had since been extinguished, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Oil Minister Hussain al-Shahristani said in a statement, read to Reuters over the telephone by a ministry official, that a hovering coalition helicopter had sparked the blaze.

“This caused the eruption of a huge fire and the loss of a huge quantity of gas. We have always asked coalition forces not to let their aircraft hover above the refinery,” it said.

A later statement emailed to the media made no mention of the aircraft being a coalition helicopter.

Shahristani did not say how the helicopter started the fire, but military aircraft in Iraq routinely discharge flares to thwart possible missile attacks by militants.

The British military, which still has a small force in Basra after handing back security control of the province to Iraqi authorities last month, said coalition aircraft were not responsible for the fire.

“No coalition helicopters were in the area at the time,” said Matt Wells, a spokesman for the British military.

MORTAR BLAMED

The Southern Oil Company official said a single mortar bomb fired at the facility started the fire.

“The investigation that our engineers conducted does not indicate in any way that helicopters were linked to the fire.”

Oil Ministry spokesman Asim Jihad said production of oil products had not been affected by the blaze, although gas production had been halted.

He could not confirm the refinery had been shut down.

The Shuaiba refinery is the biggest in southern Iraq and mainly supplies the Iraqi market with gas and oil products.

The complex has the capacity to refine 160,000 bpd of crude oil for the domestic market, Jihad said, but it is currently producing 100,000-120,000 bpd of crude derivatives.

Iraq is already suffering from gasoline shortages, and a shortage of fuel for power production has caused lengthy blackouts during one of the coldest winters in years.

The country sits on the world’s third-largest reserves of oil, but decades of war and sanctions have stymied production.

Last week a technical fault triggered a big fire at Iraq’s largest oil refinery, in Baiji in northern Iraq. Production of fuel and oil derivatives was not affected in that blaze.

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