BASRA, Iraq (Reuters) – Suicide bombers launched three coordinated boat attacks on Iraq’s vital southern Basra offshore oil export terminal on Saturday, killing two members of U.S.-led forces.
A spokeswoman for the U.S. Navy’s Bahrain-based Fifth Fleet said by telephone five other coalition members were wounded, but a Fifth Fleet statement put the number at four. Officials said there was no damage to the terminal, Iraq’s primary oil outlet.
“The coalition boarding team were killed and wounded as a result of three concurrent waterborne attacks in the Arabian Gulf,” the statement said.
The boat attacks followed a series of suicide car bombings in the city of Basra itself this week that killed 73 people. President Bush and Iraqi officials blamed those attacks on Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda.
Yemen is holding 11 suspects over al Qaeda-linked attacks on two Western ships on the Gulf Arab state’s coast, including the U.S. destroyer Cole in the port of Aden in 2000 in which 17 U.S. servicemen were killed.
Iraq’s mainly Shi’ite Muslim south was relatively peaceful until rebel Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr led a revolt this month by his militia and supporters.
Earlier this month, Iraqi Oil Minister Ibrahim Bahr al-Uloum said a planned mid-April major international oil and gas conference in Basra had been postponed indefinitely due to security reasons.
Northern oil installations, especially the export pipeline to Turkey and the Mediterranean coast, have come under attack since the war to oust Saddam Hussein a year ago, although less frequently in the past few months, oil officials say.
A British Defense Ministry spokeswoman in London said: “A boat exploded next to (the terminal). But there was no damage to the oil terminal or the boat alongside it. As far as I know there were no British casualties.”
Two of the attacking boats exploded alongside a ship tied up at the terminal, some six miles offshore, British military spokesmen and Iraqi officials said.
The third boat was intercepted by a coalition ship as it approached an exclusion zone around the terminal and there was an explosion soon after it was boarded, they said.
Officials at Iraq’s Southern Oil Company said the Basra terminal had been shut down.
“All workers were evacuated (from the Basra terminal). We are concerned about the possibility of more attacks,” an official stationed in the Faw Peninsula said.
TERMINAL VITAL TO IRAQ
Iraq is almost completely dependent on the terminal — which is in Britain’s sector of responsibility in the country — to export around 1.9 million barrels per day, providing badly needed funding for a country battered by war and violence.
A senior oil industry official in Baghdad said two oil tankers had been scheduled to load two million barrels each at the Basra terminal around the time of the attacks.