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Jul 03 - 09, 2000

Four dead in Kuwait refinery explosion

Four people were killed and 49 injured in a blast at Kuwait's biggest oil refinery on Sunday. Eyewitnesses said a section of the Mina al-Ahmadi refinery continued to burn for more than seven hours after the blast. Officials said the explosion had occurred at a liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) plant.

The Governor of Ahmadi region, Sheikh Ali Abdullah al Sabah, told reporters that the fire resulted from a gas leak in a pipe. It took several hours to extinguish the fire.

The explosion affected an area within a radius of five kilometres of the refinery. The officials discounted possibility of sabotage. The explosion was so intense that it shattered windows in offices and other buildings at the complex and in townships nearby. Huge clouds of black smoke gathered above the refinery.

At least one of the dead was a Kuwaiti national. Others remained unidentified. The refinery, with a capacity of around 443,000 barrels per day, has been shut down. Officials said the refinery was expected to remain closed for at least one week.

The country's two other refineries were functioning normally and Kuwait's export operations were continuing without interruption.

The cabinet appointed a committee, headed by Oil Minister Sheikh Saud Nasser Al Sabah, to investigate the accident.

Last week an explosion from a gas leak from another refinery at Shuaiba port had resulted in the death of two Kuwaiti employees and a slight injury to four others.

Agencies add: Oil Minister Sheikh Saud Nasser al-Sabah said some units at the Al-Ahmadi refinery would remain closed for several months. "The damage is not small. We don't exactly know the amount of damage yet. Some units will cease operations for months, and others for weeks," said the minister, calling the blast a "catastrophe".

But he added that Kuwait's oil exports would not be affected, although some contracts for refined products would have to be scrapped.

US, Jordan set to start free trade talks

US Deputy Treasury Secretary Stuart Eizenstat said on Monday the United States and Jordan would start talks on a landmark free trade agreement this week.

Eizenstat said US Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky and a senior Jordanian delegation led by Deputy Prime Minister Mohammad Halaykah, whose country is one of the biggest recipients of US foreign aid, would start hammering out the accord.

"We are commencing discussions this week for an historic Free Trade Agreement (FTA) between the US and Jordan...We are all very enthusiastic," Eizenstat told businesspeople and officials during a visit to an industrial zone set up under an agreement to help encourage Israeli-Jordanian cooperation.

The Irbid park, a so-called Qualifying Industrial Zone (QIZ), was the first of five parks designated in 1997 as a QIZ where products enjoy duty-free status on the US market if they meet a minimum Israeli content. The parks are a centerpiece of US-Israeli-Jordanian efforts to deliver an elusive peace dividend to disenchanted Jordanians.

The zones have attracted global multinationals seeking duty free access to US markets.

"Today there are five QIZs in Jordan which by our estimate employ 5,000 Jordanians. That is what the economic dimension of the peace process is all about," Eizenstat said during a tour of plants that produce garments and suitcases to the US market.

Eizenstat also said he would urge Israel on Tuesday to facilitate a "quantum" rise in Jordanian exports to Palestinian self-rule areas to address business complaints that Israel was keeping the lucrative market as a monopoly for its goods.

The senior US official met King Abdullah and commended him on his push to modernize Jordan's tribally structured society, saying Washington supported his drive to accelerate privatization and lure foreign investors to generate jobs.

Lebanon raises $500 mln

Lebanon has raised 500 million dollars from a five-year Eurobond issue, with local banks the main contributors, Finance Minister Georges Corm was quoted as saying in press reports Thursday.

Corm said the loan was originally set at 400 million dollars but was 25 per cent ovsersubscribed.

However he admitted that only 30 per cent of the 99.89 dollar bonds were taken up abroad, including 10 per cent in Europe, five per cent by US pension funds and the rest in the Gulf. The Greek national bank was a subscriber for the first time, Corm added.

The aim of the issue, which carries interest of 9 3/8 per cent, is to spread more of Lebanon's public debt of 22 billion dollars overseas.

US sees economic window for Palestinians

The Palestinians should gear their economy now to reap benefits of a potential peace dividend should a final agreement with Israel be reached, US Deputy Treasury Secretary Stuart Eizenstat said on Wednesday.

"If there is a peace agreement, there'll be a very narrow window of opportunity when there'll be worldwide attention focused on the Palestinians and the effort to get them started in a positive way," Eizenstat told Reuters in an interview.

Israel and the Palestinians are attempting to seal a final peace deal by September.

Eizenstat was in Jerusalem during a two day visit to Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

Eizenstat said it was "critically important" that Palestinians move forward with economic reforms "so that investors will have confidence that they can come in".

Necessary measures include setting up a commercial infrastructure and privatisation strategy for Palestinian industries, shrinking a bloated public sector and developing a more independent judiciary, he said.

Albright fails to bridge Israeli-Palestinian gaps

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak told Albright the only way to secure progress ahead of a mid-September deadline for a final peace accord with the Palestinians was through a summit meeting with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Clinton.

"Until now we have no agreement. The substantial negotiations will begin only if and when there will be a summit meeting," Barak told reporters after meeting Albright, who earlier held talks with Arafat and her Israeli counterpart David Levy.

Only hours earlier, Arafat rejected a US suggestion for a mid-July three-way summit, stressing to Albright that more negotiations were needed first. He did, though, leave the door open for a bridging summit to take place later in July.

At the same time, both sides said they would leave the decision on a summit up to Clinton and would respect his decision which is to be made after he hears a full report from Albright.

Iran launches first offshore bunkering service

Iran has launched its first offshore bunkering service at an anchorage south of the Qeshm island free trade zone in the Gulf, a Qeshm official said on Monday.

Singapore-based Global Energy provides the services in cooperation with the National Iranian Tanker Company (NITC) and National Iranian Oil Company (NIOC).

Ahmad Hakim, a senior official in Qeshm, told Reuters that the floating anchorage, set up nine miles (15 kilometers) southwest of Qeshm, had begun its services earlier this month, having already fuelled several international tankers.

WB lends Tunisia $200 mln

The World Bank granted Tunisia two loans worth $200 to finance water projects and an education system upgrading programme, the bank said. The loan for water projects is $101 million while the one for the education improvement scheme is worth $99 million, it said in a statement received on Thursday.

UASC net slips

The Arab world's largest shipping firm, United Arab Shipping Co (UASC), said on Thursday its net profit slipped by $7 million in 1999 to $20.18 million.

Credit for Palestinian

The World Bank said Wednesday it had approved a 7.5 million dollar credit for the Palestinian Authority to improve roads, water distribution and sewage services in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

FIB merger complete

Faysal Islamic Bank of Bahrain (FIB) said on Sunday it had completed its merger with Islamic Investment Company of the Gulf (IICG), creating a $230 million entity.

Syria opens door

Syria is preparing to allow foreign banks into the country, if only in free-trade zones to begin with, the official daily Ath-Thawra reported Monday. Hailing the measure as "a great step forward in the attraction of capital", the paper said that since the weekend authorities in the free zones had begun receiving applications to set up banks.

Thuraya with Iran

Abu Dhabi-based Thuraya Satellite Telecommunications Co on Tuesday signed a service provider agreement with Iran's national telecommunications company, the firm said.

"Our partnership with TCI (Telecommunications Company of Iran), the national telecom provider of Iran, would enhance our presence in the local market through their expertise and support, while also reinforcing our commercial base at the regional level," Thuraya's Chairman Mohammad Omran said after he inked the deal in Tehran.

Syria accepts World Bank aid

Syria has accepted an offer of advice from the World Bank on how to attract investments to the country, the government daily Tishrin reported Tuesday.

"The World Bank and the International Finance Corporation — a World Bank affiliate which assists the private sector — have said they are prepared to produce studies on all aspects relating to support for investments in Syria," the paper said.

Telecom, oil firm sales

Egypt's prime minister has said the government will announce next week offers in Telecom Egypt, oil distribution firms and remaining state stakes in privatised firms, cabinet sources said.

"We agreed on activating the capital market through more public awareness of the market and (through) the privatisation programme," Atef Obeid told reporters late on Monday following a ministerial economic committee meeting.

Syria seeks $161 mln

Syria is seeking to borrow a total of 161 million dollars from Japan and the Islamic Development Bank to finance port expansion and the acquisition of merchant ships, Transport Minister Makram Obeid was quoted as saying Tuesday.

A 100 million dollar loan from Japan would pay for developing the ports of Tartus and Lattaqieh in the northwest of the country, he told the ruling party newspaper Al-Baath.

Egypt corruption case

Egyptian bankers on Monday welcomed the outcome of a loan scam trial in which four members of parliament were among 31 people convicted, but voiced concern that it might deter bank lending and worsen a liquidity crisis.

"It's positive in the sense that it's the first ever case to indict top-level management in banks and it is also a warning to other corrupt bankers," corporate banker Khaled Abdel-Kader of Egyptian British Bank (EBB) told Reuters.

"But the case will affect the market and banks' reputation," he said. "It gives a misleading impression to people outside that corruption is high in Egypt." A state security court wound up a 37-month trial on Sunday by convicting and sentencing 31 bankers, businessmen and MPs accused of using five banks to extend or receive unsecured loans worth a total of 1.6 billion pounds ($500 million).

WB grants Lebanon

The World Bank Tuesday said it granted Lebanon an 80-million-dollar loan to finance infrastructure projects in Lebanese municipalities. The accord was signed by World Bank country director for Lebanon, Padmanabharao Hari Prasad, and the Lebanese interior and municipal affairs minister, Michel Murr.

He said about 12 million dollars of the loan will be available for towns in the south of the country.

Gas deposits discovered

British Gas has discovered two deposits of natural gas off the coast of the Gaza Strip that should be sufficient not only to supply the needs of Palestinians but permit a small amount for export, a Palestinian official told Tuesday. "British Gas, which has been prospecting off Gaza for five months, has informed me of the discovery of two gas deposits," said Abdelrahman Hamad, chairman of the Palestinian energy authority.

Cell C defends phone bid win

A Saudi-backed consortium named the preferred bidder for South Africa's third mobile phone licence on Wednesday defended its business plan as sound and declared itself ready to run the network.

Cell C, which is backed by Saudi Arabian conglomerate Saudi Oger, said the delay in naming the licence winner threatened to harm South Africa's standing in the eyes of foreign investors.

Emad Baban, Saudi Oger's vice-president, said his conglomerate was committed to Cell C's success if it was awarded the licence — valued at $200 million (29.45 billion rand).

AIG as investment advisor

The Yarmouk University Investment Fund (YIF) has chosen Atlas Investment Group (AIG) as its Investment Management Advisor.

YIF signed, on Tuesday June 27th, an investment management and advisory agreement with AIG to manage the Fund's securities portfolio and advise on its structure and asset allocation.