BAGHDAD -- Firefighters fought a massive oil pipeline fire in northern Iraq yesterday, after insurgents detonated explosives in what authorities described as one of the worst sabotage attacks in the region since the US-led invasion.
The explosion Thursday on the line extending from fields southwest of Kirkuk to the oil refinery in Beiji set off a fire that pumped balls of fire and black smoke over the area. The fire continued to rage late last night.
Officials at the state-run Northern Oil Co. decided to temporarily stop pumping oil to the Turkish Mediterranean port of Ceyhan, fearing the fire could spread to the key pipeline running to the port, said Major General Anwar Mohammed Amin of the Iraqi National Guard in Kirkuk.
''The pumping to the Ceyhan port has stopped because of this act of sabotage," Amin said. ''It is the biggest sabotage operation on the oil installations in Kirkuk since the invasion."
Northern Oil Co. officials couldn't immediately be reached for comment.
Authorities fighting the blaze said it might take two days before engineers could fix the pipeline.
Also in Baghdad yesterday, an aide to radical Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr denounced the kidnapping of two French journalists in Iraq and appealed for their release in a sermon at a makeshift pulpit outside the revered mosque in Kufa as hundreds of worshippers held their first weekly prayers since last week's peace agreement.
Sadr aides initially said the cleric planned to give the sermon at the Kufa mosque, which was closed last week after militants pulled out as part of the peace deal, but he abandoned the idea amid fears it could raise tensions. Iraqi security forces also sealed off roads and fired warning shots near the city, seeking to limit the number of worshippers and avoid unrest.
Sheik Jaber al-Khafaji, delivering Sadr's sermon on his behalf, condemned the kidnapping of the two French journalists and urged their quick release.
''This is inhumane, and I ask that it not be repeated in the future," he said. ''You should know that such actions are not part of the Iraqi resistance. . . . They tarnish the image of the Iraqi resistance."
A militant group calling itself The Islamic Army in Iraq said it had kidnapped the reporters and demanded that France lift its headscarf ban, but the government refused. Georges Malbrunot, 41, reports for the daily Le Figaro, and Christian Chesnot, 37, is with Radio France International. They were last heard from on Aug. 19 as they set off for the southern city of Najaf. Their Syrian driver also is missing.
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There was confusion about who was holding the two French reporters. Editors at the French daily newspaper Le Figaro, where Malbrunot works, said Thursday that officials believed the hostages had been handed over to a different Sunni Muslim group that was prepared to negotiate their release. But Dulaymi insisted that the Islamic Army in Iraq still held the hostages.
In Amman, Jordan, French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier sounded cautiously optimistic.
''According to the indications which were given to us and we are studying at this moment with caution, Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot are alive, in good health, and are being well treated," he said at a news conference.
Hopes for their release were raised further yesterday when Abdul-Salam Al-Qubeisi, an official with the Association of Muslim Scholars -- a Sunni clerical organization with alleged ties to insurgents -- said the Frenchmen's lives were no longer threatened and it was only a matter of time before they would be freed.
''The state of danger is no longer present," Qubeisi told the Al-Jazeera television station. He did not say how he got the information or whether he was in touch with the kidnappers.
Iraqi police and national guardsmen set up checkpoints, barring all cars from entering Kufa a week after Sadr and his al-Mahdi militia relinquished control of the city's revered shrine.
Nevertheless, about 2,000 followers of Sadr lined the street in front of the mosque, setting up a pulpit on the street.
Despite the peace deal in Najaf, many members of Sadr's militia are thought to have returned with their weapons to their Baghdad stronghold of Sadr City and the cleric's representatives and Iraq's interim government have been seeking common ground to end fighting there.
In other developments:
According to a Reuters report, US tanks opened fire on Iraqi security forces in the city of Fallujah yesterday, an Iraqi officer said, and Iraqi doctors said two had been killed. Eight other Iraqis were injured when the tanks fired on a checkpoint in southeast Fallujah, the doctors said. A US military spokesman said he had no information on the event.
Three Macedonian contractors disappeared in Iraq 10 days ago, a government spokesman in Skopje and their employers said yesterday. Iraqi officials have been unable to confirm whether they were kidnapped.
The US military said two US soldiers were wounded when they were hit by shrapnel when their convoy came under attack while on patrol near the city of Tikrit.
Gunmen abducted four policemen and an Iranian they were escorting to the border to be deported after raiding their hotel room in the southern city of Basra, a senior Basra police official said on condition of anonymity.
The official declined to provide details on why he was being deported, but linked the Iranian's deportation to the unrest in Najaf.
The Defense Department said the death toll for US military personnel in Iraq since the US-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003 was 975 and the number of wounded was approaching 7,000.