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Oil train derails, burns in central Georgia

An oil train catches fire after an explosion in central Georgia , sending plumes of black smoke into the air.

world Updated: Aug 24, 2008 22:06 IST

An oil train caught fire after an explosion in central Georgia on Sunday, sending plumes of black smoke into the air.

It was not clear what caused the explosion. Several Georgian officials said they suspected the train hit a land mine and blamed Russian forces, who just withdrew from the area after a brief but intense war between the two former Soviet republics. Later, one official suggested the fire could be linked to discarded munitions in the area.

Russia pulled the bulk of its troops and tanks from Georgia on Friday, but built up its forces in and around two separatist regions and left other military posts deep inside the Caucasus Mountain nation.

A few kilometers (miles) west of the central city of Gori, an Associated Press reporter saw 12 derailed tanker cars Sunday _ some askew on the railway line, others off the track, some flipped on their sides. A long line of trees along the railroad track had been partially burned.

Firefighters were hosing down the wreckage and appeared to have the blaze under control. Georgian forces were seen removing a large artillery shell that had been jammed under the tracks and covered with stones.

Earlier, televised reports showed massive clouds of billowing black smoke rising from the burning tankers. Georgian television reported that 20 other cars were decoupled from the train to prevent the fire from spreading.

The Georgian Foreign Ministry said the most likely cause of the train derailment and fire was a Russian mine planted on the tracks, an opinion echoed by the director of Georgia's railways, Irakli Ezugbaia, and Georgian Interior Ministry spokesman Shota Utiashvili. Later, Utiashvili said it was possible that debris from explosions at a disused munitions dump nearby hit the train, causing the fire. He earlier had reported that debris from the train blast had caused a fire at the munitions storage site.

Ezugbaia said an investigation was under way and other mines had been found on the tracks. He said the train was carrying crude oil from Kazakhstan transported by an Azerbaijani company to a Georgian Black Sea port.

Georgian officials say Russian forces deliberately damaged infrastructure before their pullback to weaken Georgia, and accused the Russians of hindering energy transport by blowing up a train bridge used to carry oil and petroleum products earlier this month. Georgia straddles a key westward route for oil and gas from Azerbaijan and other Caspian Sea nations including Kazakhstan, bypassing both Russia and Iran. The location lends the small nation added strategic importance as the U.S. and the European Union seek to decrease Russia's dominance of oil and gas exports from the former Soviet Union.

Georgian railways spokeswoman Tamara Macharashvili said the railway bridge destroyed Aug. 16, located east of Sunday's train wreck, had not yet been fully repaired yet but trains could use a bypass route. The train that was damaged Sunday had used the bypass, she said.

Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili later said rail traffic on one set of tracks on the line had been restored and that traffic on the adjacent tracks would be restored later Sunday. The main oil pipeline running through Georgia, the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline or BTC, had been shut down days before the war broke out Aug. 7 after a fire on the Turkish section. Kurdish rebels claimed responsibility for the blaze. British oil company BP PLC, which leads consortium of energy companies that owns the pipeline, said Wednesday that testing would begin, but it was unclear when the pipeline could be fully operational. The BTC line usually provides some 1 million barrels per day of Caspian Sea crude to international markets. BP also shut down a smaller pipeline running through Georgia during the fighting because of security concerns.