Craters show Russia just missed Georgian pipeline

AKHALI-SAMGORI, Georgia (Reuters) – Russian planes dropped bombs this month within 15 meters (50 feet) of a pipeline that British oil company BP was in the process of reopening through Georgia, according to witnesses.

Residents on Friday showed Reuters correspondents deep craters alongside the pipeline, which runs between Azerbaijan’s capital Baku, on the Caspian Sea, and Georgia’s Black Sea port of Supsa.

Reuters reported on August 12 that Georgia had accused Russia of bombing the pipeline, although without causing serious damage. Russia denied any such attacks.

“They started dropping the bombs at seven o’clock in the evening of the 11th,” said Adam Zaridze, 26, a herdsman.

“In one day they dropped 42 bombs,” he said. “They were black planes … The cattle ran all over the place. Some of the cattle were killed.”

A woman suffered a fatal heart attack from fear, he said.

Next to a marker post above the underground pipeline, in a parched, open landscape 25 km (15 miles) from the border with Azerbaijan, three craters were visible within 15 meters of it. The largest was about three meters deep and eight in diameter.

A line of craters could be seen running perpendicular to the pipeline for a distance of more than one km. In one place, cattle were grazing beside a churned-up area larger than a soccer pitch, with two large craters in the middle.

STRATEGIC PIPELINES

Pipelines through Georgia, bringing oil and gas westwards from the Caspian Sea, are strategically important because they bypass Russia and help reduce Western energy dependence on Moscow. The European Union relies on Russia for about a quarter of its gas and much of its oil.

This month’s short Russian-Georgian conflict rattled energy markets and Western governments, which saw it as an attempt by Russia to reassert control over a former Soviet republic seeking to escape Moscow’s orbit and move closer to the West.

BP spokesman Matt Taylor said the company was aware of the bombing near the pipeline but did not wish to comment.

When fighting began, BP was in the process of reopening the pipeline, which was pumping 150,000 barrels per day (bpd) until it was closed for maintenance in 2006.

He said the idea was reopen it at 90,000 bpd to “provide some flexibility” and back-up for the main oil pipeline across Georgia, which runs from Baku via Tbilisi to Ceyhan in Turkey.

That pipeline normally carries between 700,000 and 800,000 bpd but was closed for two weeks this month because of an explosion in its Turkish stretch.

It runs close to the Baku-Supsa pipe, as does an important gas pipeline from the Caspian to Turkey, but neither were damaged in the conflict.

Taylor said it was hard to say when the smaller Baku-Supsa pipeline could reopen.

“We just want to get it up and running as soon as we can but it’s very hard to put a timeline on it right now,” he said.

“The operation’s been put on hold until we can assess the impact of this conflict on the integrity of this pipeline.”

He said BP would be closely following the Russia-Georgia crisis. On Friday, Georgia said it was cutting diplomatic relations with Moscow, which responded by saying it would close its embassy in Tbilisi.

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