By Elias Biryabarema

KAMPALA (Reuters) – Oil producer China National Offshore Oil Corp said on Thursday it had halted field work at its western Uganda project over an Ebola scare and would resume operations only after getting the green light from the health ministry.

Uganda’s oilfields in the Albertine rift basin are a few miles from the epicenter of the latest Ebola outbreak that has killed nearly 1,700 people in the Democratic Republic of Congo since August last year.

“No activities for CNOOC in the area,” CNOOC spokeswoman Aminah Bukenya told Reuters. “Those in the camp are supposed to keep there until…the ministry of health deems it fit for operations to continue.”

The decision was prompted by the death of a patient suspected of Ebola at a health center in the area a few days ago, Bukenya said. The health ministry determined the death was not caused by Ebola, but the company has decided not to resume work “for some time” for precautionary purposes, she said.

The Ebola fears were partly fanned by Congolese refugees moving in the areas around the oil fields and at risk of spreading the disease, she said.

In June two people who had traveled from Congo died of Ebola in Uganda, without spreading the disease further there, while a third who had also visited Uganda from Congo died shortly after returning home.

The deaths put Uganda on a high alert for a potential major cross-border spillover of the Ebola outbreak.

Health ministry spokesman Emmanuel Ainebyoona could not be immediately reached.

The World Health Organisation on June 17 declared the latest outbreak of the highly infectious hemorrhagic fever a global health emergency, sounding a rarely used global alarm after the virus threatened to spread to a major city and into neighboring countries.

CNOOC co-owns Uganda’s oilfields with France’s Total and London-listed Tullow Oil.

Uganda, which discovered oil in 2006 with reserves estimated at 6 billion barrels, says it expects to start pumping the crude in 2022 after an oil export pipeline has been put in place.

(Reporting by Elias Biryabarema; Editing by Omar Mohammed, Christian Schmollinger and Deepa Babington)