Blast hits pipeline in Syria, causing wide power outages

DUMAIR (AP) — An explosion early Monday struck a gas pipeline in a Damascus suburb, causing a huge fire and cutting off electricity throughout Syria, state media reported, citing the country's electricity and oil ministers.

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U.N.-led talks in Geneva including the Syrian government, opposition and civil society were meanwhile put “on hold” after three delegates tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus.

The oil minister, Ali Ghanem, said the explosion struck the line that feeds three power stations in southern Syria, calling the incident “a cowardly terrorist act.” Ghanem spoke to journalists who visited the blast site near the suburb of Dumair, northeast of the capital.

Syria’s oil and gas infrastructure has been hit over the past years by acts of sabotage, but no one has ever claimed responsibility for such attacks. The nine-year civil war, which has killed more than 400,000 people, has also badly affected oil and gas fields, many of which are outside government control.

The state news agency SANA quoted Electricity Minister Zuhair Kharbotli as saying the explosion on the “Arab Gas Pipeline” occurred after midnight Sunday between the northeastern Damascus suburbs of Adra and Dumair.

He said it was the sixth time the pipeline was hit. Technicians are working to fix the problems and electricity should be restored in the coming hours, he said.

Ghanem, the oil minister, said the pipeline was attacked in this same desert area six times in recent years. He said it pumps some 7 million cubic meters of natural gas to power stations that supply much of Syria with electricity.

U.S. Syria envoy James Jeffrey said the attack was “almost certainly a strike" by the Islamic State group. The extremists were driven from the last bit of territory under their control in Syria last year, but sleeper cells continue to carry out sporadic attacks.

Jeffrey said there has been an upsurge in IS activities in desert areas in eastern and southeastern Syria near the border with Jordan and Iraq.

The U.S. envoy was in Geneva for the start of U.N.-mediated talks involving the Syrian government, opposition and civil society. They had planned to discuss a possible new constitution, part of a process has produced few concrete results so far.

The talks were suspended just hours after the meetings began in Geneva, according to the office of U.N. envoy Geir Pedersen. It said the three delegations had gotten off to a “constructive first meeting” before the talks were suspended.

IS militants have claimed responsibility for attacks over the past months that killed scores of government troops as well as members of the U.S.-backed and Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces.

In December, near-simultaneous attacks believed to have been carried out by drones hit three government-run oil and gas installations in central Syria. One of the attacks targeted the oil refinery in the central city of Homs.

In January, bombs planted underwater off Syria’s coast exploded, damaging oil facilities used to pump oil into one of the country’s two petroleum refineries.

Syria has suffered fuel shortages since last year. Western sanctions have blocked imports, while most Syrian oil fields are controlled by Kurdish-led fighters in the country’s east.

Information Minister Imad Sara said the aim of these attacks is to pressure government supporters to demand that the state make concessions to its rivals. He added that “what was not taken by war will not be taken by dialogue or explosions.”

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Associated Press writer Jamey Keaten in Geneva contributed to this report.