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Mexican oil, gas pipelines attacked

Leftist guerrillas claim responsibility for the bombings. Officials move to boost security at key installations.

July 11, 2007|Hector Tobar and Marla Dickerson | Times Staff Writers

MEXICO CITY — A leftist guerrilla group claimed responsibility Tuesday for a series of bombings of pipelines operated by Pemex, Mexico's national oil company, and authorities moved quickly to protect the nation's oil and gas industry from further attacks.

The Popular Revolutionary Army, or EPR, said in a communique that it would continue its bombing campaign until the government disclosed the whereabouts of two EPR members said to have disappeared last year in the southern state of Oaxaca.

A spokesman for President Felipe Calderon said the government would "punish those responsible" for the attacks that began Thursday. Founded a decade ago, the EPR is a small group based largely in the southern state of Guerrero.

Officials were taking steps to increase security at the country's "strategic installations," Calderon's office said in a statement.

Explosions sent flames nearly 1,000 feet into the air before dawn Tuesday outside the city of Corregidora, in the central state of Queretaro, where several pipelines were severed, including a 36-inch pipe that transported natural gas to local distributors and a 16-inch line that supplied a local refinery with crude oil.

Officials said no one was injured in the attacks.

The EPR statement said the group carried out "surgical harassment actions" at 1 a.m. Tuesday and had done so at the same hour Thursday, striking a total of four locations in central Mexico.

Pemex officials initially said that one of two pipeline explosions Thursday was of suspicious origin but that the other could have been caused by aging pipes.

On Tuesday, with more pipeline explosions reported and Mexican media speculating that "terrorist" cells might be responsible, authorities confirmed that all the explosions were the result of deliberate attacks.

"This criminal conduct aims to weaken our democratic institutions, the patrimony of all Mexicans and the security of their families," the Interior Ministry said in a statement.

The attacks come as Pemex is reeling from an 11% drop this year in exports from its aging oil wells in the Gulf of Mexico. Declining oil revenue looms over the country's budget calculations, and a continued drop in output could set off a national fiscal crisis.

Oil and gas pipelines around the world have become attractive targets for radical groups seeking to wreak havoc on a nation's economy by disrupting energy supplies. Colombia has had hundreds of pipeline bombings in its four decades of civil war. Some analysts said Mexico would do well to take heed.

"Mexico has been slipping toward some sort of Colombia situation where you have narcos and guerrillas around because you have a government that isn't fighting poverty," said Mexico City energy analyst David Shields. "So I would not be sure that this is the end of it."

Analysts said it was too early to assess the impact of the attacks, which appeared to be focused on internal distribution networks and not the infrastructure Mexico uses to export 1.7 million barrels of oil a day, the country's main source of foreign revenue.

The EPR communique said explosions had been set off by "three mixed platoons made up of urban and rural units."

The rebels said they set off a total of eight explosives charges on three pipelines and at a cutoff valve at locations in the central state of Guanajuato and adjacent Queretaro.

"The order to begin the national campaign of harassment against the interests of the oligarchy and this illegitimate government has been launched," the statement said.

Officials and analysts say the EPR is one of at least six guerrilla groups that trace their roots to another group of the same name founded in Guerrero state in 1994.

The EPR's first public action was in 1996, when about 100 men and women armed with semiautomatic weapons entered the town of Aguas Blancas in Guerrero. The EPR attacked several police stations and army barracks that year before splitting into factions.

"Together, these groups are the most important armed rebel groups operating in Mexico next to the Zapatistas," said Jorge Lofredo of the Spain-based Center for the Documentation of Armed Groups, which received the EPR's communique about the Pemex attacks via e-mail Tuesday.

In November, one branch of the EPR known as the Democratic Revolutionary Tendency of the EPR claimed responsibility for three bombings in Mexico City that targeted a bank, election officials and offices of the Revolutionary Institutional Party.

Lofredo said little was known about the two EPR members from Oaxaca the group named in its Tuesday statement. Oaxaca state officials have said they do not have the men in custody.

In previous statements, the EPR has said the men were kidnapped by a right-wing paramilitary group and blamed beleaguered Oaxaca Gov. Ulises Ruiz for their disappearance.

"They have been warning for months that they would launch attacks if the men were not produced," Lofredo said of the EPR rebels.

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