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Fire erupts at illegal oil well in Indonesia

Posted by On 1:20 AM

Fire erupts at illegal oil well in Indonesia

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Jakarta: A fire erupted at an illegal oil well site in Indonesia's northernmost province on Wednesday, killing at least 18 people and injuring about 40 others, some of whom were badly burnt, authorities said.

The fire broke out around 1.30am at a backyard well in a village in Aceh province, on the northern tip of Sumatra Island, according to the National Disaster Management Agency.

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Authorities were still trying to determine what had caused the fire. Local news reports said it may have started with a spark from a blowtorch or a worker smoking a cigarette.

Television news footage and photos showed flames rising at least 10 metres into the air in the farming village of Pasir Putih in East Aceh district, which is about 1600 kilometres north-west of the Indon esian capital, Jakarta.

A man uses his mobile phone to take pictures of a burning oil well after it was caught fire in Pasir Putih village in eastern Aceh, Indonesia.

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Villagers had gathered at the well shortly after midnight, carrying buckets, jars and barrels, in hopes of collecting crude oil after being told about a massive spill there, according to the disaster agency.

"A group of people came to gather up oil and they weren't supposed to be there," the disaster agency said in a statement.

At least five homes were gutted by the fire, the agency said. Firefighters and other emergency personnel, along with villagers, were still trying to contain the blaze on Wednesday evening.

Curious onlookers watch as an oil well burns after it was caught fire in eastern Aceh, Indonesia.

Photo: AP

Indonesia's Ministry of Energy and Min eral Resources and the state-owned oil company Pertamina sent teams to Aceh, which has industrial oil and gas operations, to investigate the incident, said Agung Pribadi, a ministry spokesman.

"This is a case of illegal drilling and the ones responsible for it must be dealt with by the law," he said.

Agung said the well was being operated by local residents, adding that he was not sure if there were other illegal wells in the area.

Lieutenant Colonel Wahyu Kuncoro, chief of the East Aceh district police, told reporters at the scene that firefighters were trying to "break the chain of oxygen" in the well to stop the fire. He confirmed the well operation was illegal, but he said many villagers depended on it for their livelihood.

Illegal well operations are common in Indonesian regions where oil is present, including on the islands of Sumatra and Java. In some cases, the wells were abandoned by the Dutch colonial administration that once rul ed Indonesia, and are now run by groups of villagers working around the clock.

"Oil doesn't come up to the surface easily in these old wells, so they try to pump it up manually, then try to separate the oil by distillation in barrels, and that's where they probably had the fire," said Mangantar Marpaung, former chief of the Indonesian Mining Fire and Rescue Agency.

"Then they sell it as kerosene to the local market, or for motorcycles and fishing boats," he said. "Those are their customers. The local governments know, but because they can't provide any other jobs, they look the other way."

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