Fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria attacked Iraq's largest oil refinery last night, reportedly setting as many as 17 storage tanks on fire. The Iraqi army claimed it fought off the militants, killing 40, though reports from refinery workers indicate that the ISIS remains in control of the Baiji plant, which is located just 140 miles north of Baghdad.
Gen. Qassim Atta, an Iraqi military spokesman, told reporters Wednesday morning that the army had driven back the attackers. "Baiji is now under control of our security forces, completely," he said at a press conference.
But the New York Times spoke to refinery employees and members of the Iraqi military who said ISIS fighters are in control of the facility. From the Times:
A refinery worker who gave only his first name, Mohammad, reached by telephone, said that the refinery had been attacked at 4 a.m. and that workers had taken refuge in underground bunkers. In the course of the fighting, 17 gas storage tanks were set ablaze, although it was not clear by which side. After taking heavy losses, the troops guarding the facility surrendered and at least 70 were taken prisoner, he said.
Refinery workers were sent home unharmed by the extremists, Mohammad said.
A lieutenant from the battalion guarding Baiji, also reached by telephone and speaking on condition of anonymity, said he had fled his unit when it became clear that it would not be able to hold out against ISIS forces.
This is just the latest incident contributing to the chaos in Iraq as ISIS moves towards Baghdad. On Monday night, at least 48 Sunni militants were killed in and around Baghdad, likely by Shiite militiamen. And on Tuesday, a car bomb killed 12 Shiites in Baghdad in an attack likely perpetrated by ISIS or their supporters.
Meanwhile, other countries are trying to get their citizens out of Iraq. India's foreign minister says up to 100 Indian construction workers who were working in Mosul have been kidnapped by ISIS, who took control of the city last week.
The fate of foreign workers in the attacked Beiji refinery, including 50 German workers, is unclear. German companies claim their 50 workers have already been evacuated from the refinery, but Iraqi officials denied that on Tuesday.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki tried to inspire citizens with a televised address this morning. He said his government is bouncing back after the Iraqi forces' "shock" defeat by ISIS in various recent conflicts. "But we were able to contain the strike and arrest deterioration," he said. "We have now started our counteroffensive, regaining the initiative and striking back."
[Image via AP]