- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Officials yesterday began filling the U.S.-backed $3.6 billion Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline to transport Caspian crude to Western markets.

Leaders from Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Georgia and Turkey inaugurated the pipeline at the opening ceremony at an oil terminal near the Azerbaijani capital of Baku.

Opposing any route that would bypass Russian territory, Russians unsuccessfully lobbied for their own pipeline route passing through Chechnya and Novorossiysk.

Iran also expressed its dissatisfaction with the pipeline as it sought its own territory as the optimum route for the passage of Caspian oil.

The pipeline connects the landlocked Caspian Basin with the Mediterranean while bypassing Iran, Iraq, Russia and Syria.

“We have managed to do this. We have done it,” Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev said during the opening ceremony. “Some people didn’t think it was possible, some treated the project with suspicion, while others even wanted to impede this.

“But none of these worked. Thanks to our friends and neighbors, the union of Turkey, Azerbaijan and Georgia, the assistance of the U.S. to the project.”

Although the 1,100-mile-long pipeline may alleviate some Western dependence on Middle East oil, it still faces several security challenges.

In August, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey will conduct joint exercises in an effort to ensure the security of the pipeline, the Georgian defense ministry said.

The militaries of the three countries will receive training on how to prevent terror attacks, acts of sabotage and environmental catastrophes along the pipeline route.

“Long-standing U.S. policy has been that the governments of the region are responsible for the security of the pipelines on their territory,” said Steven Mann, senior U.S. official responsible for Caspian pipelines. “The United States can provide training and advice, but pipeline security is a national responsibility.”

Georgia hired Northrop Group to develop an aerial monitoring system along the pipeline’s route and its adjacent area.

Georgia also received radars similar to those the United States uses in Afghanistan, said Giorgi Chanturia, president of the Georgian International Oil Corp.

The pipeline, now standing at 95 percent completion, has a capacity to transport about 50 million tons annually. It will take 10 million barrels to fill the pipeline before pumping can begin.

Under the agreement, the pipeline project is supposed to be completed in the first six months of this year. For each day late, contractors would have to pay a fine of $500,000.

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