At least 39 killed, over 80 injured in oil refinery blast in Venezuela

Venezuela in mourning after massive explosion - triggered by a gas leak - injures more than 80 others and damages 200 nearby homes

PUBLISHED : Monday, 27 August, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 27 August, 2012, 6:11am


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Venezuela was in mourning yesterday after a massive explosion tore through the country's largest oil refinery, killing at least 39 people and injuring more than 80 others.

President Hugo Chavez declared three days of national mourning, saying the tragedy affected "the great Venezuelan family, civilian and military".

Among the dead were 18 members of the National Guard, who were protecting the state-owned refining facility in the northwestern town of Amuay, and 15 civilians, Vice-President Elias Jaua said. The bodies of another six victims had yet to be identified.

Falcon state Governor Stella Lugo had earlier said that a 10-year-old child was among the victims.

Another 82 people were injured, Health Minister Eugenia Sader said. Fifteen of the injured remained in hospital, according to Jaua.

Chavez expressed his sympathy to the families of the dead, urging calm because "fortunately, the greatest danger has been controlled".

Ordering a "thorough investigation", he vowed to help the people who were displaced from their homes at the refinery complex, which also houses workers and their relatives, and in impoverished neighbourhoods nearby.

Energy Minister Rafael Ramirez said the explosion was triggered by a gas leak at the refinery, which is owned by state oil firm Petroleos de Venezuela, but the cause of which remained to be determined.

"The gas cloud exploded, igniting at least two storage tanks and other facilities at the refinery," he said.

Ramirez, who is also president of the state oil firm, said the refinery was shut down but operations would resume this week.

The blast damaged 209 homes and 11 shops. The homes of 13 families were destroyed and they were temporarily moved to a naval base, according to preliminary figures.

Firefighters were able to bring the fire under control, although smoke was still billowing from the facility.

While officials said there was no risk of another blast, Jaua said response units would "continue fighting the flames all night".

Venezuelan media has often reported on complaints about safety and maintenance standards at the country's refineries, which authorities have rarely confirmed.

The Latin American nation produces about three million barrels of oil a day, according to state figures, while the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (Opec) puts the number at 2.3 million barrels a day.

Opec certified last year that Venezuela has the largest oil reserves in the world at 296.5 billion barrels, surpassing Saudi Arabia, the country with the biggest refining capacity. In March, Venezuelan authorities reported even higher reserves, of 297.57 billion.

Venezuelans are gearing up for October 7 elections, in which Chavez - Latin America's most influential and outspoken leftist leader for more than a decade - is seeking a third term.

Opposition candidate Henrique Capriles, the youthful former governor of Miranda state, has trailed Chavez in recent polls by 15 percentage points. If Chavez, who has declared himself free of cancer a year after his diagnosis, wins and serves out his full term, he could rack up 20 years in office.