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Venezuela restarts refinery hit by explosion

CARACAS, Venezuela -- Operations resumed Friday at the Amuay refinery where an explosion set off a raging fire and killed 42 people and injured more than 150 others, Venezuela's state oil company announced.

The accident had paralyzed work at the oil installation in western Venezuela since the huge explosion early Saturday, which authorities blamed on a gas leak. Amuay is one of the largest refineries in the world and is part of state-run PDVSA's Paraguana Refining Center, which includes the adjacent Cardon refinery.

“Operational activities have resumed safely and gradually” at Amuay, said Paraguana general manager Jesus Luongo, who is also director of PDVSA Refining. He said the refinery was ramping up output, initially processing 160,000 barrels on Friday.

Venezuelan officials had initially said the refinery would be back in operation within two days, but later said it would be two days after fires were put out. In the end, the last fire was extinguished Tuesday and it took about three days for production to resume.

Together, the refineries in the complex can process about 900,000 barrels of crude per day.

The disaster has prompted questions about whether Petroleos de Venezuela SA has neglected maintenance while funneling its revenues into social programs run by President Hugo Chavez's socialist government.

A document published Thursday by two national Venezuelan newspapers said that months before the explosion, a study by engineers had found failures in the complex's maintenance and listed dozens of accidents. The report, which was also obtained by The Associated Press, was prepared in March by RJG Risk Engineering for the international insurance company QBE.

The study said there had been 222 accidents at the Paraguana Refining Center last year. It said 100 of those involved fires, and 60 were breaks and leaks in pipes that carry combustible liquids.

Critics have said that in addition to refinery failures from delayed maintenance, PDVSA's operations have also suffered from the firing of nearly 18,000 oil workers in 2003, about 45 percent of the payroll, after they joined a strike called by Chavez's political opponents to press demands that the president resign.

In recent years, Chavez's government has increasingly used a share of earnings from PDVSA to bankroll social programs known as “missions.” Its contributions to such programs rose from less than US$1.6 billion in 2004 to US$10.4 billion last year.

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