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Blast disaster refinery 'sabotaged'

Venezuela's oil minister has blamed sabotage for an explosion and fire that killed more than 40 people at the country's main oil refinery, saying someone deliberately loosened bolts and released highly-flammable gas.

Rafael Ramirez did not say whether anyone specifically was suspected and ruled out employees of the state-owned PDVSA oil company. Separately, President Nicolas Maduro blamed the political opposition, although without providing evidence.

But a former PDVSA security chief questioned Mr Ramirez's explanation, calling it speculative and saying it raised questions about why the leak was not detected.

Shortly after the August 25 2012 explosion at the Amuay refinery, reports emerged of faulty maintenance including dozens of accidents in the months before the disaster.

Mr Ramirez claimed the blaze was caused by the loosening of seven bolts at a pump, releasing gas that exploded when National Guard troops stationed at the refinery started up vehicles nearby to evacuate.

He said the disaster caused £709 million in damage. It took four days to extinguish the fire and 42 people died and five were reported missing by official count. Only recently has the refinery restored production to 645,000 barrels per day of crude.

But ex-PDVSA security chief Gustavo Benitez said he found it difficult to believe that insurers would pay for damages caused by the disaster based on Mr Ramirez's explanation.

He said "the pump would have had to have been damaged, the sensors (that detect leaks) would have had to have been damaged" and mitigation systems as well. He said it appeared, rather, that "maintenance had been highly inefficient".

Mr Maduro's claim that the opposition was involved in alleged sabotage follows his repeated blaming of political rivals for Venezuela's ills.

Since winning election in April by a razor-thin margin, the hand-picked successor of the late President Hugo Chavez has accused the opposition of sabotaging the overstrained power grid, causing food shortages through hoarding and mounting four alleged plots to assassinate him. Last week, he claimed opposition sabotage was behind a failure in the country's main electrical transmission line that caused about 70% of the nation to lose power for more than half a day.

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