BEIRUT — A bomb blast struck a major oil pipeline in western Syria on today, causing oil to spill into a nearby lake. State television said the explosion was a “terrorist” attack by a group of “saboteurs.”
It was the second incident involving an oil pipeline in a month, and the second time this week that authorities accused saboteurs of striking installations.
Syrian authorities have unleashed a brutal crackdown in an effort to crush the revolt against President Bashar Assad, and activists say more than 1,600 civilians have died since the protests erupted in mid-March. The government blames the unrest on terrorists and foreign extremists, not true reform-seekers.
The pipeline blast came as activists said security forces killed at least five people during overnight raids in Deir el-Zour province and suburbs of the capital, Damascus.
Authorities said the pipeline carries crude from the oil fields in the oil-rich eastern Deir el-Zour to one of Syria’s two oil refineries in the coastal town of Banias, the main point of export for Syrian oil. The second oil refinery is in the central city of Homs.
State TV said the blast hit near the western town of Talkalakh between Homs and Tartous, near the Tal Hosh dam, and left a 33 feet (10 meter) deep crater. The TV said the “terrorist attack sought to cause oil to leak into the dam’s waters in order to damage agricultural crops in the area.”
Oil Minister Sifian Allaw said 1,500 barrels of crude oil leaked from the struck pipeline into the water behind the dam. He told The Associated Press that the pumping of oil was transferred to another pipeline without interruption in the flow.
The oil that gushed into the dam’s waters caused a large spill, turning parts of the surface to black.
Numeir Makhlouf, chairman of the state-owned Syrian Company for Oil Transport, told state-run SANA news agency that the oil had leaked into a main lake that supplies the vast agricultural western area with irrigation water.
Homs governor Ghassan Abdel Al called the explosion a “first-class terrorist” act.
The regime has banned nearly all foreign media and restricted coverage of the uprising, making it nearly impossible to independently verify events on the ground.
The area of Friday’s blast, Talkalakh, is an opposition stronghold near the border with Lebanon that was overrun by army tank units, security forces and pro-regime gunmen in May after weeks of protests calling for the president’s ouster.
Rights activists say around 35 people died in the deadly crackdown and siege of Talkalakh, which is about 31 miles (50 kilometers) from Homs, a hub of anti-government protesters and scene of a brutal government crackdown in recent weeks.
Syria’s oil exports are among the main earners of foreign currency for the government, especially now that the uprising has hit the tourism industry. Last year, tourism accounted for roughly 12 percent of GDP and brought in $8 billion in hard currency.
Syria produces about 350,000 barrels of oil per day as well as natural gas.
On July 13, a blast and a fire struck a natural gas pipeline in eastern Syria. Some rights groups said it was an attack but the Oil Ministry denied any explosion and said a fire erupted on a pipeline that was under maintenance.
And last Saturday, authorities said saboteurs tied to the country’s uprising caused a passenger train to derail in central Syria, but opposition figures dismissed the accusation.
Meanwhile, Syrians are preparing for massive protests following Friday prayers in what has become a weekly ritual of demonstrations and a brutal crackdown by security forces.
Opposition groups have dubbed Friday’s protests “Your silence is killing us,” in an attempt to mobilize large sections of the population that have not yet joined the protests, as well as Arab leaders who have remained silent on the crackdown in Syria.
Activists said security forces killed at least five people overnight.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said security forces shot dead three civilians and wounded 12 in Deir el-Zour province late Thursday, after residents tried to keep the troops away by placing roadblocks and stones in their path.
Last week, Assad had sacked and replaced the governor of Deir el-Zour following massive anti-government demonstrations in the area.
The Observatory also said two people were killed during raids by security forces in a Damascus suburb, near the town of Zabadani.