Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 152

On August 5 there was an explosion and subsequent fire on a section of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) oil pipeline running through eastern Turkey, resulting in the flow of oil through the pipeline being halted. By August 7 the fire was reported to be under control, although it was not expected to be completely extinguished until August 9. On August 8 officials from Turkey’s state-owned Turkish Pipeline Company (BOTAS) predicted that it would take another 10-14 days for the pipeline to be repaired, with some forecasting that it could be as much as three months before the pipeline was once again operating normally (Today’s Zaman, August 8).

Initially, Turkish officials reported that the explosion was the result of a technical malfunction (Dogan Haber Ajansi, August 6). On August 7, however, the People’s Defense Force (HPG), the military wing of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), issued a statement claiming that the explosion was the result of sabotage by one of its units (Firat News Agency, August 7). Turkish officials have now backed down from their previous conviction that the explosion was caused by an accident. On August 7 Turkish Energy Minister Hilmi Guler told Turkish journalists that officials would have to wait until the fire had been extinguished before conducting a thorough investigation to determine the cause of the explosion. “It is too early to say anything for certain,” said Guler (Anadolu Ajansi, August 7). The Turkish television news channel CNNTurk quoted unidentified BTC officials who had visited the site as saying, “We haven’t seen any signs of an explosion that would indicate sabotage, but the cause will only become clear after the fire has been extinguished” (CNNTurk, August 7).

The first oil was pumped into the 1,100 mile (1,770 kilometer) pipeline in Baku on May 10, 2005, reaching Ceyhan on May 28, 2006. BTC currently carries around 1 percent of the world’s total oil supply. The pipeline includes eight pumping stations. There are valves positioned at regular intervals along its route to limit any oil spills. Concerns about the pipeline’s possible vulnerability to terrorist attacks were one of the main reasons for it being buried at a depth of at least 3 feet (1 meter) along its entire length; the valves, however, are exposed.

Eye witnesses reported that at around 23:00 local time on August 5, there was an explosion at valve number 30 in Refahiye County in Erzincan Province. The explosion was followed by a fire, sending flames up to 160 feet (50 meters) into the air (Hurriyet, August 6). BTC officials immediately closed valves 29 and 31. The estimated 12,000 barrels of oil in the pipeline between valves 29 and 31 were left to burn out (Today’s Zaman, August 8).

Statements issued by the HPG are not always accurate. For propaganda purposes, the organization regularly inflates the number of Turkish soldiers killed in firefights, while disguising its own losses. Nor is it unknown for the organization to claim responsibility for incidents that it did not commit and to deny responsibility for those that it did, particularly if they result in high civilian casualties. In claiming responsibility for the Refahiye explosion and fire, the HPG did not provide any details of the attack, merely promising make them public at an unspecified later date (Firat News Agency, August 7).

However, although it is still unclear whether the explosion of August 5 was the result of a PKK attack, there is no doubt that in recent months the organization has become more willing to risk alienating Western opinion.

Until fall 2007, the PKK was reluctant to antagonize the United States, partly because it was eager to be removed from the State Department’s list of proscribed terrorist organizations, but mainly because it relied on Washington to prevent Turkey from launching any military attacks against the organization’s man bases in northern Iraq. In November 2007, however, the U.S. finally agreed not only to allow Turkey to strike at PKK bases in northern Iraq but also to provide Ankara with intelligence on PKK positions (see EDM, November 6).

For similar reasons, the PKK was also wary of alienating the EU. Although it continued to conduct an urban bombing campaign in western Turkey, including targeting the country’s tourism industry, the PKK tried to distance itself from the resultant civilian casualties by using a “front” organization called the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons (TAK). The main reason appears to have been a fear that, if it could be held responsible for attacks on civilians, the countries of the EU would clamp down on its support organizations, particularly in Germany, whose 500,000-strong Kurdish minority provides a substantial proportion of the PKK’s funding and forms an important platform for its propaganda activities. However, in spring 2008 the German authorities began to crack down on PKK support organizations, culminating on June 19 in the banning of the PKK’s main television production company in Germany (see Terrorism Monitor, July 25).

As a result, the PKK no longer has the same incentive to avoid alienating either the United States or the EU and no longer appears to be operating under its former, self-imposed restraints. On July 8 a HPG unit seized three German mountaineers in eastern Turkey, the first time the PKK had kidnapped foreigners in over a decade (see Terrorism Monitor, July 25). On July 27, 17 civilians were killed and 154 injured in 2 bomb explosions in central Istanbul, the largest death toll in a terrorist attack in Turkey since the Al-Qaeda suicide bombings of November 2003. Despite the organization’s denials, all the evidence points to the PKK (see Terrorism Focus, August 5).

The Turkish authorities have a considerable incentive to try to blame the explosion and fire of August 5 on an accident, as Turkey is legally responsible for the security of the BTC pipeline and thus financially liable to the oil companies for any losses as a result of a terrorist attack. Turkey would also be financially responsible if, as is possible, the explosion of August 5 was the result of an attempt by criminal groups to steal the oil. There have been such attempts in the past.

However, even if the PKK did not attack the pipeline on August 5, the alacrity with which the HPG claimed responsibility for the explosion indicates that, at the very least, the organization undoubtedly now regards the BTC as a legitimate target.