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Explosion hits Iranian refinery just before Ahmadinejad speech

Authorities blame a gas leak and say there was no sabotage. At least one person is killed, but the president's appearance goes on.

May 24, 2011|By Borzou Daragahi | Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
  • Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at a May 9 news conference in Istanbul.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at a May 9 news conference in Istanbul. (Murad Sezer, Reuters )

Reporting from Beirut — An explosion blamed on a gas leak struck a newly inaugurated section of an oil refinery Tuesday just before President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad spoke at the facility's ribbon-cutting ceremony, state media reported.

At least one person was killed and up to 25 were injured by the explosion in Abadan, in Iran's oil-rich southwest, according to accounts by domestic Iranian news agencies. One Abadan resident quoted by the Associated Press said he saw rescue vehicles rushing to the site.

The incident did not disrupt Ahmadinejad's speech, which included fairly typical denunciations of U.S. relations with Middle East autocrats and the course of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, according to news agencies.

Officials quickly insisted that blast was the result of an industrial accident and not an act of sabotage. Iran's industrial sector has long been riddled by deadly accidents, with train and plane crashes, troubles at petrochemical facilities and other incidents.

According to the semi-official Mehr news agency, the explosion and fire were caused by a gas leak, which poisoned oil workers.

An uprising by the country's ethnic Arab minority, which was inspired by pro-democracy movements across the Middle East and brutally crushed by authorities, has also been smoldering in the country's southwest.

At least one official all but accused Ahmadinejad, who had recently appointed himself caretaker oil minister amid howls of protest by his many political rivals, of rushing to open the plant too early in order to ingratiate himself with Iranians. The refinery will eventually produce 1.5 million gallons of gasoline a day to satiate Iran's energy-hungry consumers.

Hamid-Reza Katouzian, head of parliament's energy committee, told the semi-official Fars news agency that experts had warned officials that Abadan was not ready to launch.

"There was a technical fault at the refinery," he was quoted as saying. "The incident was not deliberate sabotage."

daragahi@latimes.com

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