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Iran refinery blast as Ahmadinejad visits.

Summary: A lethal explosion at an Iranian oil refinery during a visit by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad Tuesday left the president unhurt but delivered an embarrassing blow to his drive to increase gasoline output and foil international sanctions.

TEHRAN: A lethal explosion at an Iranian oil refinery during a visit by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad Tuesday left the president unhurt but delivered an embarrassing blow to his drive to increase gasoline output and foil international sanctions.

Ahmadinejad appeared on state television shortly after the blast, which officials blamed on technical problems, lauding the inauguration of Iran's latest refinery upgrade.

But two lawmakers said the plant was unsafe and should not have been rushed into production.

Thick smoke was seen rising from the refinery in Abadan, southwestern Iran, close to the Iraqi border, but firefighters quickly had the blaze under control, Iranian news agencies said.

A plane was sent to evacuate the injured -- suffering burns and smoke and gas inhalation -- to a Tehran hospital.

The semi-official Mehr news agency, which put the death toll at two, said a gas leak had caused the blast, giving no source for its information. Iranian media did not speculate on the possibility of sabotage or an attack on the president.

"Unfortunately, we had an accident which led to a death but the rest of the injured were not severely hurt," Abdolreza Mehra, managing-director of the Abadan Oil Refinery Company, told state television.

"During the launch of this newly built complex, with the presence of the president, everything went well, but we faced a minor accident," he said.

The member of Parliament for Abadan said a similar fire had broken out at the plant two weeks ago and his pleas to delay the inauguration until the problem was fixed had been ignored.

"Despite our repeated warnings, the managers of the refinery were not willing to cancel the ceremony and they insisted on holding the event," Ali Mousavi Jaraf told the Mehr agency.

"The managers of the Abadan refinery along with those who were involved in this incident, particularly an event attended by the president, must be dealt with in the most severe way.

The damage to the plant at Abadan will have no impact on oil exports from the world's fifth-biggest exporter as it is involved in producing gasoline, not the production of crude.

But the blast is a blow to Iran's drive to become self-sufficient in gasoline as international sanctions have squeezed its ability to import the automotive fuel.

"The Abadan refinery is the biggest and oldest in Iran, it continuously needs a lot of work and maintenance," London-based energy consultant Mehdi Varzi told Reuters.

"Obviously anything along these lines is a major setback if it is part of the overall upgrading process to produce more gasoline."

Ahmadinejad made no mention of the blast in his speech and praised the upgrade at the Abadan site as part of Iran's strategy to foil sanctions.

After the blast, an Oil Ministry official was quoted as saying by the semi-official Fars news agency that Iran should close a major petrochemical plant on the Gulf island of Kharg unless its security is beefed up to protect from sabotage.

The comment appeared to be a swipe at the decision by Ahmadinejad to sack Oil Minister Massoud Mirkazemi and appointed himself caretaker head of the ministry, a move criticized by his rivals and deemed illegal by the state constitutional watchdog.

"Regarding safety issues, our opinion is that the Kharg petrochemical plant should be completely shut down," said Mohammad Hossein Ardeshiri, director-general for safety, health and the environment at the ministry.

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Publication:The Daily Star (Beirut, Lebanon)
Geographic Code:7IRAN
Date:May 25, 2011
Words:611
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