GIBRALTAR - An explosion and fire at a Gibraltar power station Sunday blacked out much of the British outpost and halted international online betting operations with giants including William Hill and Ladbrokes.
A power station generator exploded because of mechanical problems, said police and government officials on the Rock, a tiny British-held peninsula on the southern tip of Spain.
As thick smoke billowed over the territory, police told nearby residents to keep their windows closed to avoid breathing problems.
No one was harmed, police and a spokesman for the Gibraltar government said.
But the blaze interrupted Gibtelecom services, bringing down worldwide betting services such as Ladbrokes, William Hill and Betfred.
Gibraltar's low taxes have lured 26 major online casinos and gaming operators. The Rock claims that 60 percent of that lucrative online business flows through its territory.
William Hill said the blaze forced its services offline for about two and a half hours.
Some 50 staff at the William Hill offices adjacent to the fire were evacuated by police and firefighters, said spokesman Graham Sharpe.
"It is just one of those freak events nobody could have predicted," Sharpe told AFP, offering apologies to any affected customers.
"There will be those who will claim they would have backed a winner but there will be others who have been saved from backing a loser," the spokesman said.
- Fire interrupted telecoms -
William Hill operations were now back to full strength, he said.
Ladbrokes said it, too, was hit as the fire interrupted Gibtelecom's communications network linking the territory with the rest of the world.
"We apologise to the customers who were affected by the loss of some of those services on Sunday afternoon and have been working hard and successfully to restore these," Ladbrokes said in a statement.
"None of our staff were affected by the incident, and no customer data was compromised during that period," it said.
Betfred's Internet site was still down in the evening, some six hours after it alerted customers to the problem via Twitter.
"Please be aware that all services are currently down, we're working hard to resolve this issue & will update all customers once resolved," said the latest Tweet update by Betfred.
Gibraltar police said investigators had ruled out foul play.
Spain ceded Gibraltar to Britain in perpetuity in 1713 but has long argued that it should be returned to Spanish sovereignty, and the territory remains a source of diplomatic tensions.
Spain's tax office has reportedly set up a working group to analyse tax payments made in Gibraltar, suspecting that Spanish company earnings escape its clutches.
Gibraltar denies such claims.
It abolished in January 2011 its "exempt status tax regime" under which some companies avoided tax and instead introduced a single 10 percent levy.
Relations between London and Madrid became particularly strained last year after Gibraltar dropped 70 concrete blocks into the sea in July, in what its government said was an attempt to create an artificial reef.
The move had the effect of also blocking Spanish fishing boats from operating close to the airport runway, and Madrid responded by introducing stringent border checks.
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