Algeria opens a symbolic link to Europe

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The Independent Online
The first gas pipeline between North Africa and Europe - financed largely by the European Union - opened this week, bringing gas from Algeria to Spain and eventually to France and Portugal. A symbolic link between Africa and Europe, it will help to diversify the supply of gas throughout Europe and bring down transport costs.

"It was a dream becoming true. Few people believed in this project 25 months ago," the Algerian Energy Minister Amar Makhloufi told foreign guests and reporters shortly after the went officially on stream on Saturday.

The 1,400km pipeline brings gas from Morocco's Hassi R'Mel deposits via Morocco and the Gibraltar Strait to the southern Spanish city of Cordoba, where it will be channelled into Spain's existing natural gas network. By 2000, the pipe will supply nearly half Spain's gas needs.

The pipeline has been nearly five years in the making, at the cost of $2.3bn - nearly half of which was contributed by the European Union. Supplies are to build up gradually and will replace existing supplies brought by boat from Algeria - which supplies 50 per cent of Spain's gas - Libya, Norway and Australia. It is the world's most complicated such project, since 45km of pipe had to be laid on the geologically complex and uneven floor of the Gibraltar strait, in the teeth of fiendishly strong currents. Debris from the Second World War, including mines and sunken battleships, had to be cleared away before the pipe could be laid.

Fears that the pipeline might be the target of Algeria's Islamic fundamentalists have been played down by the Spanish gas authorities. Experts say that both government and opposition in Algeria recognise the economic importance of the project.

However, last October Islamic extremists decapitated 34 passengers in a bus stopped at a false road check near the gas field, and gas pipelines have in the past been a terrorst target for those seeking to sabotage the country's economy.

Years of fundamentalist violence, causing 60,000 deaths, have not, however, discouraged foreign companies from continuing to invest in the exploitation of Algeria's oil and gas reserves. The fields are in the southern Sahara area that has been largely spared the violence of the north.

None the less, the Algerian government has designated the area around Hassi R'Mel "a strategic security zone".