HEMEL HAMPSTEAD, Dec 11: A series of explosions rocked Britain’s fifth largest oil depot situated about 25 kilometres north of London early Sunday morning, injuring 40 people. Medical director of the West Hertfordshire Hospitals Trust said two of the people were injured seriously while others received varying categories of injuries.

Though the incident at the Buncefield oil depot was initially described as an accident, the authorities did not rule out possibility of investigating terrorist links.

Hertfordshire Chief Constable Frank Whiteley told a news conference, “All indications at this stage are that this was an accident. However, clearly we will keep an open mind.”

Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups have threatened to target fuel depots.

Nigeria’s Ijaw Youth Council (IYC) had specifically warned of attacks on British oil interests following the arrest in London of oil-rich Bayelsa state governor, Diepreye Alamieyesiegha, on suspicion of money-laundering.

Incidentally, the explosions occurred just four days after Arabic news channel Al-Jazeera aired on December 7 a full version of a video by Al Qaeda’s deputy Ayman al-Zawahri calling on the “the holy warriors to concentrate their campaigns on the stolen oil of the Muslims, most of the revenues of which go to the enemies of Islam”.

The explosions, which occurred at around 6am, sent huge flames of fire in the sky and briefly disrupted the transportation network, including flights at the busy Heathrow airport and the motorways.

A spokesperson of the county council advised drivers in and around Hemel Hampstead to take alternative routes as the M1 and M10 motorways were completely closed in both directions.

The ripple effects of the explosion were felt in surrounding areas of the oil depot as the blast shattered the windows of houses and hotels. County council officers had started examining schools, day centres and other services in the area for damages.

Advising the residents of Hemel Hampstead not to panic, an official of the council said: “There is nothing to suggest the cloud is toxic but as a precaution we are asking residents in Hemel Hampstead and the surrounding areas towards St Albans to keep their windows and doors closed and stay in.”

The official said as a result of the explosion a heavy cloud hanging over the refinery was moving slowly in an easterly direction.

Advising the people against panic buying of fuel, the official said: “We have no indications at this stage that this explosion will cause fuel shortages. However, we do have early reports of people panic buying petrol. We strongly advise against this as recent events have shown that panic buying alone can cause fuel shortages.”

A spokesperson of the London Heathrow Airport said the airport would continue to function normally and had enough fuel supplies and alternative sources to keep the operations running.

Owned jointly by French company Total, and Texaco, part of the US Chevron Group, the Buncefield oil depot is the fifth largest fuel distribution depot in the UK. It supplies petrol and other oil products to a number of airports, including nearby Luton and Heathrow, and parts of London. British companies, BP, Shell and British Pipeline also used the facility. In addition to being an oil storage depot, Buncefield is a major hub on the UK oil pipeline network with pipelines radiating from it to Killingholme Lindsey Oil Refinery, Humberside (10 inch), Merseyside (10 and 12 inch), Coryton on the Thames Estuary (14 inch) and Heathrow (6 and 8 inch) and Gatwick airports.

Officials said the oil companies were making arrangements to source oil from alternative distribution terminals.

Officials anticipated further explosions at the site as some of the 26 storage tanks continued to burn. It would take a couple of days to extinguish the fire completely, said an official.

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