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Kuwait pleads for help to quell oil-field blazes


KUWAIT CITY -- Kuwait pleaded yesterday for international help in quenching its fields of burning oil, a job complicated by poisonous gas and growing lakes of oil.

Minister of Oil Rasheed al-Amiri said Kuwait needed "whatever new technologies, whatever new ideas, whatever support" any countries could give. The task "is too big. It is going to take a long time," he said.

Experts exploring the fields where Iraqis exploded more than 500 oil wells have found unexpected complications, he said.

About 35 wells were damaged but not set ablaze by the blasts, and about seven of these are spewing deadly hydrogen sulfide. Those must actually be set afire to burn off the lethal gas, according to the minister.

Wells that are not burning are creating huge oil lakes in the desert, flowing over access roads and threatening residential areas, he said.

"We are making sand barriers along the sides of the highways to prevent the crude from coming into the highways," Mr. al-Amiri said. "This is delaying the firefighting program. It may get to the residential areas. I hope it will not, but this danger frankly exists."

He said at a news conference last night that nearly half the wells would have to be stopped by drilling a diagonal shaft to intercept the burning well column. That process is much more time-consuming and expensive than other firefighting means, and officials had hoped it could be avoided for most wells.

He said they still did not know the status of about 30 percent of the wells, which experts could not approach because of the possibility of land mines, unexploded cluster bombs from allied bombing and the heat and smoke of the fires.

Three American companies and one Canadian company are moving equipment into the fields to begin the work. But Mr. al-Amiri said the job was far bigger than could be handled by these companies, which he said were the only ones in the world with experience in fighting oil fires.

Officials have estimated that it will take nearly two years to extinguish the fires.

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