'No reasonable person can assert today that Hong Kong maintains a high degree of autonomy from China, given facts on the ground,' said Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Photo: AFP/Mandel Ngan

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has blamed Iran for Saturday’s attack on Saudia Arabian oilfield facilities, while Riyadh has vowed to respond, raising tensions in the Middle East.

Saudi Arabia said it was ready to respond to drone attacks claimed by Iran-aligned Yemeni rebels on two major oil facilities, which has severely disrupted production, as Washington blamed Tehran for the strike.

US Secretary of State Pompeo blamed Tehran for the attack, saying there was no evidence it was launched from Yemen. “Iran has now launched an unprecedented attack on the world’s energy supply,” Pompeo said on Twitter.

“The United States will work with our partners and allies to ensure that energy markets remain well supplied and Iran is held accountable for its aggression,” the top US diplomat added.

The strikes sparked fires at the state-owned Aramco oil plants and prompted furious condemnation from the top US diplomat, who blamed Tehran for the strike.

A Yemeni rebel spokesman claims responsibility for the attack. Photo: Supplied

Meanwhile, on Sunday Iran dismissed as “meaningless” the US accusations that it was behind the drone attacks on Saudi oil installations, suggesting Washington was seeking a pretext to retaliate against the Islamic republic.

“Such fruitless and blind accusations and remarks are incomprehensible and meaningless,” foreign ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi was quoted as saying in a statement.

“The Americans adopted the ‘maximum pressure’ policy against Iran, which, due to its failure, is leaning towards ‘maximum lies’,” Mousavi added.

Huge palls of smoke rose into the sky after the pre-dawn attacks on Abqaiq and Khurais, two key Aramco facilities in eastern Saudi Arabia as the giant prepares for a much-anticipated stock listing.

The drones triggered multiple explosions, forcing state-owned Aramco to temporarily suspend production at the two facilities, interrupting about half of the company’s total output, Energy Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman said.

The Iran-linked Huthi rebels said they launched “a large-scale operation involving 10 drones” on the facilities, the group’s Al-Masirah television reported.

Following a phone call between US President Donald Trump and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the White House condemned the attacks on “infrastructure vital to the global economy.”

Prince Mohammed had earlier issued a statement saying the kingdom was “willing and able” to respond to this “terrorist aggression,” according to Saudi state media.

Washington’s condemnation of Tehran throws into doubt expectations that Trump is trying to arrange a meeting with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani at the upcoming United Nations assembly.

Saudi security guards outside the Aramco oil processing plant in Abqaiq, reportedly the world’s largest, in the oil-rich Eastern Province in February 2006. Drones were used to attack this facility on Saturday. Photo: AFP

Saudi interior ministry spokesman Mansour al-Turki said there were no casualties in the attacks in the kingdom’s Eastern Province.

But the full extent of the damage was not immediately clear as reporters were not allowed near the plants where Saudi authorities swiftly beefed up security.

The attacks on the Abqaiq plant – Aramco’s largest oil processing facility – and nearby Khurais, which hosts a massive oil field, “resulted in production suspension of 5.7 million barrels of crude oil per day”, the company said.

Aramco CEO Amin Nasser said work was underway to restore production and a progress update would be provided in the next two days.

Smoke billows from an Aramco oil facility in Abqaiq, about 60km southwest of Dhahran in Saudi Arabia’s eastern province, on September 14, 2019. Photo: AFP

Production halted

Explosions at the plant also led to a production halt of an estimated two billion cubic feet of gas per day, Prince Abdulaziz said.

The UN’s Yemen envoy Martin Griffiths said he was “extremely concerned” over the latest attacks, which also drew swift condemnation from Riyadh’s Gulf allies, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Kuwait.

In recent months, the Huthi rebels have carried out a spate of cross-border missile and drone attacks targeting Saudi air bases and other facilities in what they say is retaliation for a long-running Riyadh-led bombing campaign on rebel-held areas in Yemen.

Last month, an attack claimed by Huthi rebels sparked a fire at Aramco’s Shaybah natural gas liquefaction facility – close to the Emirati border – but no casualties were reported by the company.

Rebel drones also targeted two oil pumping stations on Saudi Arabia’s key east-west pipeline in May, shutting it down for several days.

Growing rebel attacks underscore how Saudi infrastructure, including oil installations, are increasingly vulnerable to the Huthis’ steadily advancing weaponry – from ballistic missiles to unmanned drones.

The Abqaiq plant, which Aramco says plays a “pivotal role” in its operations, has been targeted by militants in the past.

In an attack claimed by Al-Qaeda in February 2006, suicide bombers with explosive-laden vehicles attempted to penetrate the processing plant, killing two security guards.

The two bombers also died in the attack, which failed to breach the compound, authorities reported at the time.

The United States and Saudi Arabia have blamed Tehran for multiple attacks on tankers in the Gulf, and in June, Trump called off air strikes against Iran at the last minute after it downed a US drone.

The latest attacks come as Saudi Arabia accelerates preparations for a much-anticipated initial public offering of Aramco, the world’s most profitable company.

The mammoth IPO forms the cornerstone of a reform programme envisaged by the powerful crown prince to wean the Saudi economy off its reliance on oil.

Aramco is ready for a two-stage stock market debut including an international listing “very soon,” its CEO Amin Nasser told reporters on Tuesday.

Saudi shares dropped 3% at the start of trading Sunday, the first session after the attacks on the two major oil facilities knocked out more than half the kingdom’s production.

The Arab world’s largest capital market shed some 200 points in the first few minutes after the opening bell, before regaining some of the losses.

The key energy sector plunged 4.7%, while the telecom and banking sectors each slid 3%.


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