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Chavez slams reports blaming maintenance as refinery blaze rages

PUNTO FIJO, Venezuela -- Venezuelan firefighters battled Monday to extinguish a devastating fire at the country's main oil refinery as President Hugo Chavez slammed reports that poor maintenance was to blame.

The Venezuelan leader promised an investigation into Saturday's tragedy that left 41 people dead — a gas leak is the suspected cause — and three days of national mourning were declared ahead of his trip to the Amuay refinery, in the country's far north.

But Chavez, fighting a re-election campaign ahead of Oct. 7 polls, slammed reports that poor maintenance was responsible for the accident at the state-owned refinery, one of the biggest in the world, as he paid a visit there.

“Some philosopher said — I don't know who — that 'life must go on,'” said Chavez, describing as “irresponsible” experts who have suggested that the government had inadequate safeguards in place at the site.

He also said that those who had perished in the tragedy would not be forgotten.

“Those who died physically will resurrect spiritually with every victory of our motherland,” the president assured.

The toll jumped to 41 on Sunday after two people who sustained extensive burns in the blast succumbed to their injuries.

Jesus Valdes of Coromoto Maracaibo Hospital said seven of 15 people admitted with serious injuries and still receiving care were in a “critical but stable condition.”

Venezuela is South America's biggest oil producer and more than 30 hours after the worst accident ever for state oil firm Petroleos de Venezuela (PDVSA), authorities were still struggling to extinguish flames in two of nine storage tanks that were set ablaze at the refinery.

At least 18 of those killed in the fire were National Guard soldiers and 15 were civilians, most of them relatives of the troops. Six more bodies were unidentified.

Vice President Elias Jaua said “erratic winds” had complicated the work of firefighters in trying to extinguish monster flames spilling out of the tanks that could be seen from kilometers (miles away), but he insisted that the situation was “under control.”

The refinery is located in a residential and commercial complex where workers live with their relatives and poor families who settled in surrounding neighborhoods.

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Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, center, talks to Venezuelan state-run oil company PDVSA's workers in Punto Fijo, Falcon state, Venezuela, Sunday, Aug. 26, a day after a massive blast at the country's largest oil refinery Amuay, part of the larger Paraguana Oil Refining Complex. (AFP)

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