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Hopes Fade For Workers Missing At Sea After Azerbaijan Oil-Rig Fire

  • RFE/RL

Hopes faded for more than 20 oil workers still missing as rescue workers pulled bodies from the Caspian Sea, three days after a fire swept through a drilling rig off Azerbaijan's coast.

Six bodies were recovered on December 7, bringing the death toll to eight in what a senior official of state oil company SOCAR called "the biggest tragedy" in its history.

With 23 workers missing, President Ilham Aliyev's government struggled to soothe distraught relatives and head off questions about its handling of the disaster.

Azerbaijani authorities say a storm caused the fire to erupt on the oil platform in the Azeri-Chirag-Deepwater Gunashli field, about 120 kilometers offshore, on December 4.

SOCAR said 32 workers were evacuated from the stricken oil rig, while the bodies of two others were recovered over the weekend.

A weekend statement on Aliyev's official website suggested there is little hope of finding any of the missing workers alive.

Many are believed to have drowned when a lifeboat they had boarded foundered in heavy seas during the storm.

"I join the relatives in their grief," the statement quoted Aliyev as saying. He designated December 6 a day of mourning nationwide, with flags at half-staff and entertainment programs cancelled.

But some of the workers' relatives accused SOCAR and Azerbaijani authorities of botching the rescue effort.

"They are dealing with the fire, not searching for the missing people," Tahir Tagiyev told RFE/RL hours before his brother's body was pulled from the sea on December 7. "The rescue operation is not being conducted at an appropriate level."

The search-and-rescue operation involves seven vessels and four helicopters from the state border service, as well as four Emergency Situations Ministry helicopters and ships from the Azerbaijan Caspian Shipping Company.

Difficult Rescue

SOCAR has also asked the four other countries with Caspian Sea coastlines -- Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia and Turkmenistan -- to search their own territorial waters for bodies.

The company said the storm complicated the rescue operation and that some of the workers were recovered from the sea at a considerable distance from the rig.

"The speed of the wind and the height of the waves were so huge that people who fell into the sea were likely taken far away," SOCAR Vice President Khalik Mammadov told journalists. "Part of the broken boat was spotted 50 kilometers away but, by the time we arrived, it had disappeared."

Mammadov called the fire "the biggest tragedy in SOCAR's history."

Baldamirza Aliragimov, the chief engineer of SOCAR's Azneft oil and gas production unit, said that firefighters were still battling the fire on December 7.

Prosecutors have opened a probe into possible "breaches of fire safety regulations."

There have been a number of fatal incidents on offshore oil rigs in recent years in Azerbaijan, a key partner in projects to deliver Caspian Sea oil to Western countries.

The oil industry as a whole has also been hit by several disasters in the same period.

In 2011, a drilling platform sank in a storm off Russia's far eastern coast, killing 53 people.

In 2010, an explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig, leased by British energy giant BP, killed 11 workers and released millions of barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

One of the deadliest incidents ever took place in the North Sea in 1988, when the Piper Alpha oil platform operated by the US-based Occidental Petroleum exploded, killing 167 people.

The Caspian oil rig blaze came months after a fire at an apartment building in Azerbaijan's capital, Baku, killed 15 residents and prompted criticism of the authorities.

With reporting by RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service, Reuters, AP, AFP, and Interfax
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