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U.S. warplanes bomb pipeline controls to stop growing oil slick

By DENHOLM BARNETSON

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia -- U.S. warplanes attacked and destroyed a set of pipeline controls leading to the Sea Island oil terminal off Kuwait in a bid to stop Iraqi President Saddam Hussein from leaking additional crude oil into the Persian Gulf, the commander of allied forces said Sunday.

Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf told a news briefing in the Saudi capital that pilots carried out the attack using precision weapons at 10:30 p.m. Saturday. He said it would be 24 hours before the military was certain whether or not the bombing had successfully stemmed the flow of oil from the terminal.

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Millions of gallons of oil has leaked from four loaded ships and the terminal itself, creating a 35-mile-long and 10-mile-wide gooey black slick that has coated sea birds and fouled the shoreline of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. The United States has blamed Iraq for the ecological disaster, while Baghdad holds Washington responsible.

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The announcement of the U.S. attack to stem the oil flow to the terminal came as Saudi officials acknowledged that a second oil spill is fouling the beaches of northeastern Saudi Arabia. Officials said the slick was caused by leakage from oil tanks in the town of Khafji that were shelled by Iraq.

'There was a second spill in the area that originated from oil tanks at Khafji that were shelled by the Iraqis several days ago,' said Prince Abdul aziz bin Salman, a consultant of the Ministry of Petroleum and Mineral Resources. 'The second spill is a smaller one that apparently accounts for early reports of beach and wildlife damage in the Saudi costal strip south of Khafji.'

Bin Salman said the government was taking steps to control the second spill, but the environmental damage was likely to be great.

'We feel quite confident at this time that we will be able to emerge from this incident without any affect on our oil production, processing or export capability,' he said. 'We are also confident of our protective measures at other kinds of facilities with regard to enviromnental effects, however, we fear that the effects could be very serious indeed.'

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Saudi officials said Sunday that the country's vital coastal facilities providing water and electricity are not at risk from the giant oil spill in the Gulf, but environmental damage from the slick 'may require decades' to reverse.

'Saddam Hussein is waging a war on the region's wildlife,' Dr. Abdulbar Al- Gain, president of Saudi Arabia's Meteorology and Environmental Protection Administration, said at a news conference.

'An oil spill of this magnitude is completely unimaginable. It is catastrophic in terms of the possible damage it might cause.'

President Bush has dispatched a special team of U.S. environmental experts to Saudi Arabia to help the kingdom minimize the environmental damage from the spill.

'Plans for protection of important facilities were prepared well in advance of the spill,' Al-Gain said. 'These facilties are either now protected or in the process of being protected.'

He said there is 'no risk' to the kingdom's vital desalinization plants that provide drinking water and which are protected by booms, or its electrical generating capability. However, Kuwaiti officials have said the slick threatened its coastal desalinization plants.

The Saudi official said the spill 'may well be the largest in history,' surpassing the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska and the Nowruz spill that occurred during Iraq's eight-year war with Iran.

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'Having learned from the Nowruz experience that (Iraqi president) Saddam Hussein has little regard for the environment, we had taken precautions and protected the desalinization plants at Al-Khafji and Al- Safaniyah and initiated plans to protect the remaining desalinization plants and electrical generating facilities,' he said.

The most recent aeriel surveillance indicated the southern end of the slick was offshore at the town of Safaniyah and that the spill was heading south. 'It was breaking into two tails, each 50 to 100 meters in width,' said Al- Gain, who added he was uncertain about the size of the spill.

'The military tells us that the oil spill poses no threat to their operations, so that the remaining danger is primarily towards the natural resources of the region,' Al-Gain said.

'The Arabian Gulf is a sensitive area environmentally. ... Further physiological stress' on many species of wildlife could cause 'population changes that may require decades before a new equilibrium can be attained. We anticipate impacts upon fishery production for many years to come.'

He referred specifically to the impact on the dugong, a marine mammal known in the United States as the manatee and threatened with extinction. 'We will want to resettle some of the Gulf Dugongs (into) the Red Sea,' he said.

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