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Turkey Inaugurates Key Oil Pipeline

A 1,768 kilometer pipeline carrying oil from the Caspian Sea to the Turkish Mediterranean port of Ceyhan was formally opened Thursday. The Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline links Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey. Oil is then shipped to western markets. The U.S.-backed project was conceived 10 years ago to diversify the West's oil supplies and bypass Russia.

The leaders of Turkey, Georgia and Azerbaijan were joined by ministers and other dignitaries from around the world to inaugurate the $4 billion pipeline that runs for 1,768 kilometers from Azerbaijan via Georgia to Turkey.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the launching of the line known as the Baku-Tblisi-Ceyhan, BTC, was a strategic event that would alter the face of the region. Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili said the moment marked the start of what he called "real independence" for Georgia.

Observers say the completion of BTC marks a rare victory for U.S. foreign policy in the region. Successive U.S. administrations have lobbied hard for the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan line that weakens Russia's stranglehold over exports of oil and gas from the former Soviet Republics. The line also clinches the role of a key NATO ally Turkey as a major energy conduit between east and west.

Another virtue of BTC is that is will likely help harness the growing volume of oil tanker traffic through Turkey's Bosporus straits. Turkish official say the tankers pose a significant environmental and safety threat to the country's commercial capital Istanbul, which straddles the narrow waterway.

The British oil giant BP is the main partner in the consortium running the pipeline. Total capacity is expected to reach one million barrels per day by 2008. Kazakhstan recently announced that it would ship some of its vast oil reserves through the BTC line as well adding to the commercial viability of what Azerbaijan calls "the project of the century."

Turkey is expected to earn about $300 million annually in transit fees.

The loading terminal of Ceyhan on Turkey's southern Mediterranean coast is already the terminal for a dual pipeline running from Iraq's Kirkuk oil fields, which has been periodically sabotaged by Iraqi insurgents.