US blames Iran after attacks on Saudi oil facilities cripple production
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US blames Iran after attacks on Saudi oil facilities cripple production

Riyadh says it is halting work at two plants targeted by drones in assault claimed by Yemen’s Houthi rebels; Pompeo accuses Iran of ‘unprecedented attack’

Smoke billows from an Aramco oil facility in Abqaiq about 60km (37 miles) southwest of Dhahran in Saudi Arabia's eastern province on September 14, 2019. (AFP)
Smoke billows from an Aramco oil facility in Abqaiq about 60km (37 miles) southwest of Dhahran in Saudi Arabia's eastern province on September 14, 2019. (AFP)

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — The US cast blame on Iran Saturday after Yemen’s Houthi rebels launched drone attacks on the world’s largest oil processing facility in Saudi Arabia and a major oil field, sparking huge fires at a vulnerable chokepoint for global energy supplies.

The drone attacks affected up to half of the supplies from the world’s largest exporter of oil, though the output should be restored within days, multiple news outlets reported, citing unidentified sources. It was unclear whether anyone was injured at the Abqaiq oil processing facility and the Khurais oil field.

Saudi Arabia’s energy minister said the kingdom was temporarily halting production at two Aramco oil facilities that were attacked by the Yemeni rebels, interrupting about half of the company’s total output, the energy minister said Saturday.

The attacks “resulted in a temporary suspension of production at Abqaiq and Khurais plants,” Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman, the energy minister said in a statement carried by the official Saudi Press Agency.

The attacks follow weeks of similar drone assaults on the kingdom’s oil infrastructure, but none of the earlier strikes appeared to have caused the same amount of damage. The attacks likely will further increase tensions across the Persian Gulf amid an escalating crisis between the US and Iran over its unraveling nuclear deal with world powers.

ILLUSTRATIVE — A gas flame is seen near the Khurais oil facility in an area where operations are being expanded, about 60 miles southeast of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, June 23, 2008 (AP Photo/Hasan Jamali)

The Iranian-backed Houthis, who hold Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, and other territory in the Arab world’s poorest country, took responsibility for the attacks in the war against a Saudi-led coalition that has fought since 2015 to reinstate the internationally recognized Yemeni government. But the US blamed Iran, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeting, “There is no evidence the attacks came from Yemen.”

“Iran has now launched an unprecedented attack on the world’s energy supply,” Pompeo added.

In a short address aired by the Houthi’s Al-Masirah satellite news channel, military spokesman Yahia Sarie said the rebels launched 10 drones after receiving “intelligence” support from those inside the kingdom. He warned that attacks by the rebels would only get worse if the war continues.

“The only option for the Saudi government is to stop attacking us,” Sarie said.

Shiite rebels, known as Houthis, hold up their weapons to protest against Saudi-led airstrikes, as they chant slogans during a rally in Sanaa, Yemen, Thursday, March 26, 2015. (photo credit: AP Photo/Hani Mohammed)

Houthi rebels have been using drones in combat since the start of the Saudi-led war. The first appeared to be off-the-shelf, hobby-kit-style drones. Later, versions nearly identical to Iranian models turned up. Iran denies supplying the Houthis with weapons, although the UN, the West and Gulf Arab nations say Tehran does.

UN investigators said the Houthis’ new UAV-X drone likely has a range of up to 1,500 kilometers (930 miles). That puts the far reaches of both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in range.

First word of Saturday’s assault came in online videos of giant fires at the Abqaiq facility, some 330 kilometers (205 miles) northeast of the Saudi capital, Riyadh. Machine-gun fire could be heard in several clips alongside the day’s first Muslim call to prayers, suggesting security forces tried to bring down the drones just before dawn. In daylight, Saudi state television aired a segment with its local correspondent near a police checkpoint, a thick plume of smoke visible behind him.

In this image made from a video broadcast on the Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya satellite news channel on Saturday, Sept. 14, 2019, a man walks through a parking lot as the smoke from a fire at the Abqaiq oil processing facility can be seen behind him in Buqyaq, Saudi Arabia. (Al-Arabiya via AP)

In a statement carried by the state-run Saudi Press Agency, the Interior Ministry said an investigation was underway.

“These attacks resulted in production suspension of 5.7 million barrels of crude oil per day,” the state-owned Aramco said in a statement.

US President Donald Trump called Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to offer his support for the kingdom’s defense, the White House said. The crown prince assured Trump that Saudi Arabia is “willing and able to confront and deal with this terrorist aggression,” according to a news release from the Saudi Embassy in Washington.

The US Embassy in Riyadh said it was unaware of any injuries to Americans. Saudi Aramco employs a number of US citizens, some of whom live in guarded compounds near the site.

Saudi Aramco describes its Abqaiq oil processing facility in Buqyaq as “the largest crude oil stabilization plant in the world.”

This AFPTV screen grab from a video made on September 14, 2019, shows smoke billowing from an Aramco oil facility in Abqaiq about 60km (37 miles) southwest of Dhahran in Saudi Arabia’s eastern province (AFP)

The facility processes sour crude oil into sweet crude, then transports it onto transshipment points on the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea or to refineries for local production. Estimates suggest it can process up to 7 million barrels of crude oil a day. By comparison, Saudi Arabia produced 9.65 million barrels of crude oil a day in July.

The Khurais oil field is believed to produce over 1 million barrels of crude oil a day. It has estimated reserves of over 20 billion barrels of oil, according to Aramco.

There was no immediate impact on global oil prices as markets were closed for the weekend. Benchmark Brent crude had been trading at just above $60 a barrel.

Screen grab from video said to show explosions in Buqyaq, Saudi Arabia, September 14, 2019 (Twitter)

While Saudi Arabia has taken steps to protect itself and its oil infrastructure, analysts had warned that Abqaiq remained vulnerable. The Rapidan Energy Group, a Washington-based advisory group, warned in May that “a successful attack could lead to a monthslong disruption of most Saudi production and nearly all spare production.” It called Abqaiq, close to the eastern Saudi city of Dammam, “the most important oil facility in the world.”

The war has become the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. The violence has pushed Yemen to the brink of famine and killed more than 90,000 people since 2015, according to the U.S.-based Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, or ACLED, which tracks the conflict.

The rebels have flown drones into the radar arrays of Saudi Arabia’s Patriot missile batteries, according to Conflict Armament Research, disabling them and allowing the Houthis to fire ballistic missiles into the kingdom unchallenged. The Houthis launched drone attacks targeting Saudi Arabia’s crucial East-West Pipeline in May. In August, Houthi drones struck Saudi Arabia’s Shaybah oil field.

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