Sun, 08 Apr 2001

ExxonMobil gas field catches fire after rebel attack

BANDA ACEH, Aceh (JP): Fire was raging in the early hours of Saturday morning at a natural gas field belonging to U.S. energy giant Exxon Mobil Oil Indonesia (EMOI) after it was allegedly attacked by rebels, reports said here.

There were no immediate reports of casualties, but the fire, which first broke out at about 1 a.m. at gas installation "Cluster IV" in Lhoksukon, North Aceh, was put out by midday by the company's fire brigade.

Sidick Nitikusuma, spokesman for state oil company Pertamina, suspects the fire was sparked by a grenade attack by the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) rebels.

A grenade thrown by the separatists exploded near a gas extraction installation in Lhoksukon, he said.

North Aceh GAM commander Abu Sofyan Daud denied the allegation, saying the fire was caused by the burning of used tires.

Exxon spokeswoman Julia Tumengkol confirmed the fire in one of Exxon's natural gas fields.

She said in Jakarta that she received reports that following a gun fight in the area, Exxon's production facility, Cluster IV, caught fire.

Julia could not confirm who was involved in the gun fight that preceded the fire at Cluster IV.

Cluster IV is a gas collection facility where the gas is processed before it is sent to the Arun natural gas liquefaction plant.

"We can't tell you the extent of the damage as we haven't sent anybody down to check on it because of security reasons," she told The Jakarta Post.

She added that the company expected to dispatch an inspection team to the gas installation plant as soon as possible.

However, Julia said the incident might force the company to review its strategy with regard to its operations at its facilities in Aceh.

"There are some alternatives that we're discussing with Pertamina, and we may have to change some them because of it (the incident)," she said.

However, she declined to say whether these possible changes were related to the time frame to resume operations.

Exxon is currently in discussion with Pertamina on a start-up operation after the company suspended production for nearly a month.

Last month, ExxonMobil suspended pumping natural gas in Aceh amid clashes between security forces guarding the facility and rebels. The company's foreign and local staff members have been evacuated.

Terrorism against the company have concerned the U.S.

U.S. Ambassador to Indonesia Robert S. Gelbard has called on GAM members to stop acts of terrorism and threats against employees of ExxonMobil Oil Indonesia.

Antara reported on Friday that Gelbard had met with GAM representatives and asked them to stop the threats.

Indonesian security forces have dispatched three additional infantry battalions to protect the company's facilities.

Spokesman for the police's Cinta Meunasah II Operation Adj. Sr. Comr. Sad Harunantyo told The Jakarta Post by phone that the police were still probing the case.

The GAM separatist group has been battling for an independent homeland in the oil and gas rich province in the northern tip of Sumatra since 1976.

Conflicts between GAM and security forces in Aceh have killed no less than 300 people, mostly civilians, this year.

Meanwhile, Aceh's Teuku Umar Military Commander Col. Syarifuddin Tippe was officially replaced on Saturday by Col. Endang Suwarya.

The ceremony, led by Bukit Barisan Military Commander Maj. Gen. IG. Purnawa, was held in Banda Aceh, capital of Aceh province.

Syarifuddin will undergo training at the National Defense Institute (Lemhanas) in Jakarta, Antara said.

There are two military resort commands overseeing Aceh's 13 regencies.

Teuku Umar Military Resort Command oversees eight regencies/mayoralties, namely Banda Aceh, Aceh Besar, Sabang, West Aceh, South Aceh, Simeulu, Aceh Singkil and Central Aceh.

While the Lilawangsa Military Resort Command oversees the regencies of Pidie, North Aceh, Bireun, East Aceh and Central Aceh. (bkm/50/edt)