Dubai, Sep 14 (AP/UNB) — Drones claimed by Yemen's Houthi rebels attacked the world's largest oil processing facility in Saudi Arabia and a major oilfield operated by Saudi Aramco early Saturday, sparking a huge fire at a processor crucial to global energy supplies.
It wasn't clear if there were any injuries in the attacks in Buqyaq and the Khurais oil field, nor what effect it would have on oil production in the kingdom. The attack also likely will heighten tensions further across the wider Persian Gulf amid a confrontation between the U.S. and Iran over its unraveling nuclear deal with world powers. The Houthis are backed by Tehran amid a yearslong Saudi-led war against them in Yemen.
Online videos apparently shot in Buqyaq included the sound of gunfire in the background. Smoke rose over the skyline and glowing flames could be seen a distance away at the Abqaiq oil processing facility.
Saudi state television later aired a segment with a correspondent there as smoke from the blazes clearly rose behind. That smoke also was visible from space.
The fires began after the sites were "targeted by drones," the Interior Ministry said in a statement carried by the state-run Saudi Press Agency. It said an investigation into the attack was underway.
In a short address aired by the Houthi's Al-Masirah satellite news channel, military spokesman Yahia Sarie said the rebels launched 10 drones in their coordinated attack on the sites. He warned attacks by the rebels would only get worse if the war continues.
"The only option for the Saudi government is to stop attacking us," Sarie said.
The U.S. Embassy in Riyadh said it was "unaware of any injuries to American citizens."
Saudi Aramco, the state-owned oil giant, did not immediately respond to questions from The Associated Press. The kingdom hopes soon to offer a sliver of the company in an initial public offering.
Saudi Aramco describes its Abqaiq oil processing facility in Buqyaq as "the largest crude oil stabilization plant in the world."
The facility processes sour crude oil into sweet crude, then later transports onto transshipment points on the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea. Estimates suggest it can process up to 7 million barrels of crude oil a day.
The plant has been targeted in the past by militants. Al-Qaida-claimed suicide bombers tried but failed to attack the oil complex in February 2006.
The Khurais oil field is believed to produce over 1 million barrels of crude oil a day. It has estimated reserves of over 20 billion barrels of oil, according to Aramco.
There was no immediate impact on global oil prices as markets were closed for the weekend across the world. Benchmark Brent crude had been trading at just above $60 a barrel.
Buqyaq is some 330 kilometers (205 miles) northeast of the Saudi capital, Riyadh.
The Saudi-led coalition has been battling the rebels since March 2015. The Iranian-backed Houthis hold Yemen's capital, Sanaa, and other territory in the Arab world's poorest country.
The war has become the world's worst humanitarian crisis. The violence has pushed Yemen to the brink of famine and killed more than 90,000 people since 2015, according to the U.S.-based Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, or ACLED, which tracks the conflict.
Since the start of the Saudi-led war, Houthi rebels have been using drones in combat. The first appeared to be off-the-shelf, hobby-kit-style drones. Later, versions nearly identical to Iranian models turned up. Iran denies supplying the Houthis with weapons, although the U.N., the West and Gulf Arab nations say Tehran does.
The rebels have flown drones into the radar arrays of Saudi Arabia's Patriot missile batteries, according to Conflict Armament Research, disabling them and allowing the Houthis to fire ballistic missiles into the kingdom unchallenged. The Houthis launched drone attacks targeting Saudi Arabia's crucial East-West Pipeline in May as tensions heightened between Iran and the U.S. In August, Houthi drones struck Saudi Arabia's Shaybah oil field, which produces some 1 million barrels of crude oil a day near its border with the United Arab Emirates.
U.N. investigators said the Houthis' new UAV-X drone, found in recent months during the Saudi-led coalition's war in Yemen, likely has a range of up to 1,500 kilometers (930 miles).
That puts the far reaches of both Saudi Arabia and the UAE in range.
Paris, Sep 12 (AP/UNB) — The only daughter of Saudi Arabia's King Salman has been found guilty by a Paris court of charges that she ordered her bodyguard to detain and strike a plumber for taking photos at the Saudi royal family's apartment in the French capital.
Prosecutors alleged that Princess Hessa bint Salman became enraged when she saw the plumber capturing her image in Paris, fearing the pictures could be used to harm her as the Saudi monarch's daughter and the older half-sister of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
She left France shortly after the September 2016 incident and was not present for Thursday's verdict. She was sentenced to 10 months suspended prison sentence and a 10,000 euro ($10,970) fine.
Her bodyguard, Rani Saida, was found guilty on charges of violence, sequestration and theft.
Tehran, Sep 7 (AP/UNB) — Iran has begun using arrays of advanced centrifuges to enrich uranium in violation of its 2015 nuclear deal, a spokesman said Saturday, warning that Europe has little time left to offer new terms to save the accord.
The comments by Behrouz Kamalvandi of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran signal a further cut into the one year experts estimate Tehran would need to have a enough material for building a nuclear weapon if it chose to pursue one. Iran maintains its program is peaceful.
Iran already has breached the stockpile and enrichment level limits set by the deal, while stressing it could quickly revert back to the terms of the accord if Europe finds a way for it to sell its crude oil abroad despite crushing U.S. sanctions. However, questions likely will grow in Europe over Iran's intentions as satellite photos obtained by The Associated Press on Saturday showed an once-detained oil tanker Tehran reportedly promised wouldn't go to Syria was off its coast.
Tensions between Iran and the U.S. have risen in recent months, with mysterious attacks on oil tankers near the Strait of Hormuz, Iran shooting down a U.S. military surveillance drone, and other incidents across the wider Middle East. Iran separately seized another ship and detained 12 Filipino crewmembers, state television reported Saturday.
"Our stockpile is quickly increasing," Kamalvandi warned in a news conference. "We hope they will come to their senses."
The accord saw Iran limit its enrichment of uranium in exchange for sanctions relief. Among the limitations was a requirement that Iran use only 5,060 first-generation IR-1 centrifuges. A centrifuge is a device that enriches uranium by rapidly spinning uranium hexafluoride gas.
Today, Iran has begun using an array of 20 IR-6 centrifuges and another 20 of IR-4 centrifuges, Kamalvandi said. An IR-6 can produce enriched uranium 10 times as fast as an IR-1, Iranian officials say, while an IR-4 produces five times as fast.
Iran already has increased its enrichment up to 4.5%, above the 3.67% allowed under the deal. Using advanced centrifuges means a shorter time would be needed to push up its enrichment.
Kamalvandi said Iran had the ability to go beyond 20% enrichment of uranium. Experts say 20% is just a short technical step away from weapons-grade levels of 90% enrichment.
While Kamalvandi stressed that "the Islamic Republic is not after the bomb," he warned that Iran was running out of ways to stay in the accord.
"If Europeans want to make any decision, they should do it soon," he said.
Kamalvandi also said Iran would allow U.N. inspectors to continue to monitor sites in the country. A top official from the U.N.'s International Atomic Energy Agency was expected to meet with Iranian officials in Tehran on Sunday.
The IAEA said Saturday it was aware of Iran's announcement and "agency inspectors are on the ground in Iran and they will report any relevant activities to IAEA headquarters in Vienna."
Kamalvandi made the remarks in a news conference carried on live television. He spoke from a podium with advanced centrifuges standing next to him.
In Paris, U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Iran's announcement wasn't a surprise.
"The Iranians are going to pursue what the Iranians have always intended to pursue," Esper said at a news conference with his French counterpart, Florence Parly.
Meanwhile Saturday, satellite images showed a once-detained Iranian oil tanker pursued by the U.S. appears to be off the coast of Syria, where Tehran reportedly promised the vessel would not go when authorities in Gibraltar agreed to release it several weeks ago. Iran later seized a British-flagged oil tanker which it still holds.
The tanker Adrian Darya-1, formerly known as the Grace-1, turned off its Automatic Identification System late Monday, leading to speculation it would be heading to Syria. Other Iranian oil tankers have similarly turned off their tracking beacons in the area, with analysts saying they believe crude oil ends up in Syria in support of embattled President Bashar Assad's government.
Images obtained by The Associated Press early Saturday from Maxar Technologies appeared to show the vessel off Syria's coast, some 2 nautical miles (3.7 kilometers) off shore under intermittent cloud cover.
Iranian and Syrian officials have not acknowledged the vessel's presence there. There was no immediate report in Iranian state media about the ship, though authorities earlier said the 2.1 million barrels of crude oil onboard had been sold to an unnamed buyer.
The oil on board would be worth about $130 million on the global market, but it remains unclear who would buy the oil as they'd face the threat of U.S. sanctions.
The new images matched a black-and-white image earlier tweeted by John Bolton, the U.S. national security adviser.
"Anyone who said the Adrian Darya-1 wasn't headed to #Syria is in denial," Bolton tweeted. "We can talk, but #Iran's not getting any sanctions relief until it stops lying and spreading terror!"
U.S. prosecutors in federal court allege the Adrian Darya's owner is Iran's Revolutionary Guard, which answers only to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. On Wednesday, the U.S. imposed new sanctions on an oil shipping network it alleged had ties to the Guard and offered up to $15 million for anyone with information that disrupts its paramilitary operations.
Brian Hook, the U.S. special envoy for Iran, also has reportedly emailed or texted captains of Iranian oil tankers, trying to scare them into not delivering their cargo.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Transportation Department's Maritime Administration issued on Saturday a new warning to shippers about a potential threat off the coast of Yemen in the southern Red Sea.
"A maritime threat has been reported in the Red Sea in the vicinity of Yemen," the warning read. "The nature of the event is potential increased hostilities that threaten maritime security."
Large areas of war-torn Yemen are held by the country's Houthi rebels, which are allied to Iran. Shipping in the Red Sea has been targeted previously by rebel attacks. On Wednesday, a warning went out after two small boats followed one ship in the region, but there's been no other information about a new threat there.
Cmdr. Joshua Frey, a spokesman for the U.S. Navy's Bahrain-based 5th Fleet, said the Navy remained ready to maintain the safety of shippers in the region.
Separately Saturday, state TV said Iran seized a tugboat and its crew of 12 Filipinos near the Strait of Hormuz on suspicion of smuggling diesel fuel. The report did not elaborate. Frey said the U.S. Navy was aware of the report, but declined to comment further. In Manila, the Philippines' Department of Foreign Affairs said it was checking details of the reported.
Dubai, Sept 3 (AP/UNB) — An Iranian oil tanker pursued by the U.S. turned off its tracking beacon, leading to renewed speculation on Tuesday that it will head to Syria.
The disappearance of the Adrian Darya 1, formerly known as the Grace 1, follows a pattern of Iranian oil tankers turning off their Automatic Identification System to try and mask where they deliver their cargo amid U.S. sanctions targeting Iran's energy industry.
Meanwhile, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani reiterated on Tuesday that Tehran will not enter into direct talks with the U.S. unless Washington rejoins the 2015 nuclear deal that President Donald Trump withdrew America from over a year ago.
Trump's withdrawal and the imposition of heavy economic sanctions on Iran have blocked it from selling its crude oil abroad, a crucial source of government funding for the Islamic Republic. Meanwhile, tensions have spiked across the Persian Gulf over mysterious tanker explosions, the shooting down of a U.S. military surveillance drone by Iran and America deploying more troops and warplanes to the region.
The Adrian Darya, which carries 2.1 million barrels of Iranian crude worth some $130 million, switched off its AIS beacon just before 1600 GMT Monday, according to the ship-tracking website MarineTraffic.com. The ship was some 45 nautical miles (83 kilometers) off the coast of Lebanon and Syria, heading north at its last report.
Earlier, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had alleged the U.S. had intelligence that the Adrian Darya would head to the Syrian port of Tartus, just a short distance from its last reported position.
The actions of the Adrian Darya follow a pattern of other Iranian ships turning off their trackers once they reach near Cyprus in the Mediterranean Sea, said Ranjith Raja, a lead analyst at the data firm Refinitiv.
Based on the fact Turkey has stopped taking Iranian crude oil and Syria historically has taken around 1 million barrels of crude oil a month from Iran, Raja said it was likely the ship would be offloading its cargo in Syria. That could see it transfer crude oil on smaller vessels, allowing it to be taken to port, he said.
"The Iranian oil going to Syria is not something new," Raja said. "This is a known fact."
The oil shipment website Tanker Trackers similarly believes the Adrian Darya to be off Syria.
"It is now safe to assume she is in Syria's territorial waters," Tanker Trackers wrote on Twitter on Tuesday.
Iranian officials haven't identified who bought the Adrian Darya's cargo, only that it has been sold.
The U.S., which has sought to seize the tanker, alleged in federal court that the ship is owned by Iran's Revolutionary Guard, a paramilitary organization answerable only to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The U.S. recently declared the Guard a terrorist organization, giving it greater power to pursue seizing its assets.
U.S. officials since have warned countries not to aid the Adrian Darya, which previously said it would be heading to Greece and Turkey before turning off its tracker Monday. Authorities in Gibraltar alleged the ship was bound for a refinery in Baniyas, Syria, when they seized it in early July. They ultimately let it go after holding it for weeks.
Meanwhile, Rouhani addressed Iran's parliament on Tuesday and touched on ongoing negotiations aimed at saving the country's unraveling nuclear deal. Under the landmark 2015 agreement, Iran agreed to limit its enrichment of uranium in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions.
The International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed last week that Iran's stockpile of low-enriched uranium still exceeds the amount allowed by the deal. The U.N. agency also said Iran continues to enrich uranium up to 4.5%, above the 3.67% allowed under the deal but still far below weapons-grade levels of 90%.
Iran has warned it will take additional steps away from the accord on Friday if it doesn't get help from Europe to sell its oil abroad, calling it their "third step" away from the deal. An Iranian lawmaker has suggested France is proposing a $15 billion credit line for Tehran if it returns to the deal.
Rouhani told lawmakers that Iran wouldn't negotiate directly with the U.S. unless it returned to the deal. That's after speculation grew of a possible meeting between Trump and Iranian officials following an appearance by Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif at the Group of Seven meeting in August.
"Unfortunately after America's violation (of the deal) and treachery and its getting out of its commitments, the Europeans too either failed to carry out their duties, or couldn't do so, or both," Rouhani told parliament.
Rouhani added: "If (the Europeans) don't do anything significant, we surely will take the third step in the coming days."
Sanaa, Aug 29 (AP/UNB) — Yemen's internationally recognized government accused the Emirati air force of attacking its troops Thursday as they were heading to the key southern port city of Aden to fight separatists backed by the United Arab Emirates. The airstrikes killed at least 30 government forces, a Yemeni commander said.
The development raises concerns about the future of a Saudi-led coalition that has been fighting Yemen's Houthi rebels since 2015 and adds another complex layer to the civil war that has ravaged the Arab world's most impoverished country.
Infighting has raged for weeks between forces loyal to Yemen's internationally recognized government and the southern separatists, backed by the UAE — all ostensibly allies in the coalition.
Col. Mohamed al-Oban, a commander of the government's special forces in Abyan province, said the troops were on the road, headed from Abyan toward Aden on Thursday, when the strikes took place, killing at least 30.
He didn't say who was behind them, saying only the planes were from the Saudi-led coalition. The UAE also maintains warplanes as part of the coalition.
Officials in the UAE declined to immediately comment.
Yemen's foreign ministry tweeted a statement by Deputy Foreign Minister Mohammed Abdullah al-Hadrami, saying: "The government condemns the Emirati airstrike on government forces."
"We hold the UAE fully responsible for this explicit extra-judicial targeting" of the government forces, the statement said, adding that the airstrikes also left several civilians dead but without providing a specific death toll.
In the statement, the Yemeni government also urged the U.N. Security Council to condemn the attacks.
At least six raids were carried out by Emirati warplanes around the temporary capital, according to government military sources who asked to remain anonymous.
Yemen's civil war started in 2014 when Shiite Houthi rebels overran the capital, Sanaa, and much of the country's north. A Saudi-led coalition of mostly Arab states intervened a year later to try and restore President Mansour Abed Rabbo Hadi to power.
The UAE is part of that coalition but it never fully threw its support behind Hadi, allegedly over his ties to Yemen's Muslim Brotherhood, choosing instead to train and support the separatist militias.
Yemen was split into two countries, the North and South Yemen, during much of the Cold War before unifying in 1990 but a separatist movement has continued in the south. The Brotherhood is a pan-Arab Islamist movement that has been designated as a terrorist group by several Arab governments, including the UAE.
Though rare, Thursday's airstrikes were not the first time the Emirati planes struck government forces in Yemen, said Farea Al-Muslimi, a visiting researcher with London-based Chatham House.
In January 2018, an Apache helicopter belonging to the UAE hit two armored vehicles carrying government forces near the Aden airport during a similar bout of infighting between Hadi's government and the separatists.
However, this was the first time the government in an "explicit and irrevocable" statement turned against the UAE, heralding further fractures in the Saudi coalition, Al-Muslimi said.
Thursday's airstrikes also underscore the fragile nature of the Saudi-led coalition and could spell its doom, he added. "This is a natural ending for a coalition that actually never really existed," said Al-Muslimi. "It was based on instant goals and the belief the war in Yemen would be won quickly."
Thursday's airstrikes came a day after Yemeni government forces pushed into Aden to try and retake the city from the UAE-backed separatists.
Earlier on Wednesday, government troops wrested back control of Zinjibar, the capital of neighboring Abyan province, from the separatists and headed toward Aden.
Information Minister Moammar al-Iryani said Wednesday that government forces also reclaimed Aden's airport, the main hub for the country's south, but the separatists denied that.
According to officials speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the matter with reporters, forces loyal to Hadi gained some ground at the Aden airport complex before the separatists forced them to retreat. Hadi's forces also lost Zinjibar again to separatists on Thursday.
Videos showing separatist militia in control of the airport were posted on social media on Thursday by the Southern Transitional Council, the separatists' commanding body.
The push by the government forces into Aden also underscored the seesaw nature of the fighting. Only weeks before, the separatists had gained much territory in southern Yemen, pushing government forces out of strategic cities and areas.