Bangladesh Firefighters Unable To Control Gas Field Fire; 10,000 Evacuated

SUNAMGANJ, Bangladesh (AP) -- Nearly 10,000 villagers were evacuated Saturday after a gas field fire threatened to engulf their homes in northeastern Bangladesh, officials said.

The fire broke out late Friday after a gas leak during drilling of a new well at Tengratila Gas field in Sunamganj district, said M.R. Osmany, chairman of Bangladesh Oil, Gas and Mineral Corp., a government regulatory body.

Local firefighters were unable to control the blaze, Osmany said.

"We had managed to bring it down, but it flared up again this morning. The situation is going beyond control,'' Osmany said. ``The fire is burning upward, but there is a diesel reservoir on the site and we fear that if it goes up, it will be worse.''

No one was hurt, but the fire gutted a site guest house and dozens of small shops at a nearby market.

Nearly 10,000 people from seven villagers fled to neighboring villages or took shelter atop surrounding hills in the remote area bordering India, 175 kilometers (110 miles) northeast of the capital, Dhaka.

Local authorities used megaphones to warn the villagers to leave their homes as the blaze intensified and threatened to spread to seven nearby villages, Kalimuddin Ahmed, a local member of parliament, said after visiting the area, about 15 kilometers (10 miles) from Sunamganj town.

About 30 engineers and workers _ including some foreign staff from China, Australia and Canada _ were working at the site during the blow out, but they were evacuated and none was reported injured, Osmany said.

State-owned Bangladesh Petroleum Exploration and Production Co. Ltd., and Niko Resources Ltd., a Canadian exploration company, resumed prospecting in December at the gas field, which had been abandoned for nearly 20 years after running dry.

A five-member team of experts from Niko Resources was heading to the site to seal the leakage and put out the fire, Osmany said.

A column of fire and smoke could be seen as far away as seven kilometers (four miles), witnesses said.

Police and paramilitary troops cordoned off a five square kilometer (three square mile) area around the field, while authorities turned off the gas supply in the district for safety.

Bangladesh has proven natural gas reserves of up to 15 trillion cubic feet (425 billion cubic meters). Foreign companies have invested millions of dollars (euros) to explore and produce gas, alongside state-run companies.

In June 1997, a huge gas fire at Magurchhara field in neighboring Moulvibazar district burned for 23 days, causing millions of dollars of damage to villages, forests and rail tracks.