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Iraqi gasoline pipeline ablaze

BAIJI, Iraq, Saturday (Reuters)

Firefighters tried in vain to extinguish a blaze at a gasoline pipeline near the Baiji refinery in northern Iraq on Friday and U.S. authorities said they would have to shut down the line briefly.

A spokesman for the U.S.-led administration for Iraq said the fire began around 10 p.m. (1800 GMT) on Thursday.

U.S. military officers in the 4th Infantry Division, which controls the area around Baiji, said it appeared someone had been digging near the pipeline and had ruptured it, but it was unclear whether this had been deliberate or accidental.

"The fire is too large for the firefighting teams to put out," said Todd Pruden, the spokesman.

"We are still trying to shut down the line and get the fire under control."

Residents told Reuters the blaze began after an explosion and they claimed it was the work of saboteurs.

"We were just sitting down to eat and then we heard a very large bang," said Hayad Abdullah, who lives near where the blast occurred, about 20 kilometres (12 miles) north of Tikrit.

"It was sabotage," he added.

Television pictures showed the fire burning furiously late on Friday, with thick clouds of black smoke rising into the air.

Pruden said there had been no casualties and no significant damage to the pipeline or the refinery, which sits four kilometres (two miles) to the east of the blaze.

U.S. forces have a heavy presence in the area, with Tikrit, Saddam Hussein's home town, a focal point in the search for the deposed leader.

Officials at Iraq's Oil Ministry and North Oil Company said they were investigating but had no immediate information.

Sabotage of oil pipelines in Iraq has hampered efforts to get oil exports running again.

Some gasoline pipelines have also been damaged by looters who siphon off petrol to sell on the black market.

A senior Iraqi oil official said last month rampant looting was preventing Baiji from cranking out full supplies, with output running at only 70 percent of its 250,000-barrels-per-day pre-war output.

Saboteurs attacked and damaged the main pipeline carrying crude oil to the refinery, 250 kilometres (90 miles) north of Baghdad, at the end of June and U.S. military and Iraqi officials in Baiji said Saddam loyalists were behind the sabotage.

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