Houthi Drones Hit Two Major Saudi Oil Facilities; Fires 'Under Control,' Government Says

Iran-backed rebels target Aramco factories in Khurais and Abqaiq, which contains the world's largest oil processing plant

Smoke is seen following a fire at an Aramco factory in Abqaiq, Saudi Arabia, September 14, 2019.
Reuters

Yemen's Iran-aligned Houthi group on Saturday attacked two Saudi Aramco plants, including the world's biggest oil processing facility, sparking fires in the latest flare up of violence in the Gulf. 

Saudi Arabia said it had brought the blazes under control, without specifying whether oil production or exports were affected. State television said exports were continuing.

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The drone strikes on the world's biggest oil exporter come as state oil giant Saudi Aramco has accelerated plans for an initial public offering to as early as this year, and follow earlier cross-border attacks on Saudi oil installations and on oil tankers in Gulf waters. 

Saudi Arabia, leading a coalition of Sunni Muslim countries that intervened in Yemen in 2015 against the Iran-aligned Houthis, has blamed Iran for previous attacks, which Tehran denies. Riyadh accuses Iran of arming the Houthis, a charge denied by the group and Tehran. 

The extent of damage from the drone strikes in Abqaiq and Khurais provinces remains unclear. Nine hours after the pre-dawn attacks, Aramco has issued no statement and the authorities have not reported on casualties. 

Abqaiq is located 60 km (37 miles) southwest of Aramco's Dhahran headquarters. It contains the world's largest oil processing plant, handling crude from the giant Ghawar field and for export to terminals Ras Tanura - the world's biggest offshore oil loading facility - and Juaymah. It also pumps westwards across the kingdom to Red Sea export terminals. 

Fires at two major oil installations in eastern Saudi Arabia, September 14, 2019.
NASA Worldview via AP

Khurais, 190 km further southwest, contains the country's second largest oilfield. 

Many Western employees of Aramco live in Abqaiq. The U.S. Embassy in Riyadh said it was unaware of any injuries to Americans from the attacks. 

Fire and smoke

Hours after the strike in Abqaiq, a Reuters witness nearby said fire and smoke were still visible. Earlier video footage verified by Reuters showed bright flames and thick plumes of smoke rising towards the dark pre-dawn sky. An emergency vehicle is seen rushing towards the site. 

The Saudi Interior Ministry spokesman said Aramco industrial security teams fighting the fires since 4 A.M. (0100 GMT) had managed to control them and stop their spread. He did not identify the source of the drones but said an investigation was underway. 

Saudi security guard the entrance of the oil processing plant in Abqaiq, February 25, 2006.
Stringer/AFP

The Houthis' military spokesman, without providing evidence, said the attacks had achieved direct hits on refineries at both sites, which are over 1,000 km from the Yemeni capital Sanaa, and pledged a widening of attacks on Saudi Arabia. 

The Saudi-led coalition launched two air strikes on Yemen's northern Saada province, a Houthi stronghold, on Saturday, a Reuters witness said. The Houthi-run al Masirah TV said the warplanes targeted a military camp north of Saada city. 

The chief of Iran's elite Quds Force, Qassem Soleimani, in a rare reaction to such attacks on Saudi Arabia, praised the Houthis for their resistance in a Twitter post that included the hashtag Aramco.

Tensions in the region have escalated in recent months after U.S. President Donald Trump pulled the United States out of a 2018 landmark international nuclear deal and extended economic sanctions on Iran. 

The Houthis hit Shaybah oilfield last month and two oil pumping stations in May. Both attacks caused fires but did not disrupt production. 

The coalition has responded with air strikes on Houthi targets in Sanaa and other areas held by the group, which controls most large urban centres in Yemen. 

The violence is complicating UN-led peace efforts to ease tensions between the Houthis and Saudi Arabia to pave the way for political talks to end the war, which has killed tens of thousands of people and pushed millions to the brink of famine. 

The Yemen conflict is widely seen as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran.