December 23, 2011 / 7:33 PM / 7 years ago

UPDATE 3-Fuel pipeline blast kills 11 in Colombia

* Over 70 people injured, many in critical condition
    * Blast shatters homes, firefighters search for survivors
    * Too early to say if fuel thieves responsible - Santos

 (Recasts with comments from President Santos, details)	
    By Monica Garcia	
    DOSQUEBRADAS, Colombia, Dec 23 (Reuters) - A huge
 explosion at a gasoline and diesel pipeline in Colombia
killed 11 people, injured at least 70, and
destroyed dozens of homes on Friday, in an incident
described by President Juan Manuel Santos as a "great
tragedy" .	
    The explosion at a pipeline controlled by Colombia's
state-owned Ecopetrol was first blamed on fuel thieves,
but Santos later said it was too early to speculate on what
caused the blast. 	
    "This really is a great tragedy ... For the time being
there are 11 people dead, 78 injured, of which about nine or ten
are in critical condition," Santos said during a visit to the
village of Dosquebradas in the western region of Risaralda,
adding that there were many children among the injured. 	
    "We don't know yet what caused this tragedy. It's being
investigated, we'll probably be able to establish the cause
(later) today," he said, surrounded by blackened houses, while
firefighters searched for survivors among the debris. 	
    Ecopetrol issued an statement earlier on Friday saying
that fuel thieves probably caused the blast. 	
    "Ecopetrol regrets the incident in which several people were
killed and others injured when an explosion occurred in the
Salgar-Cartago pipeline ... apparently caused by people who were
stealing fuel," the company said. 	
    The pipeline is about 140 miles (230 kms) long and links
Salgar, in the center of the country, to western regions.	
    "It is a enormous disgrace because people have been warned
that they must not interfere with the pipeline," the mayor of
Dosquebradas, Luz Ensueno Betancur, told reporters.	
    Locals told Reuters that they were woken up by a strong
gasoline odor in the wee hours of Friday and could not breath
properly, which prompted many to go outdoors. 	
    "We were gasping for air, and were able to come out,
but there were other people who could not leave before the
flames and the explosions started," said Hugo Nelson Sanchez,
whose house was destroyed. 	
    The Mining and Energy Ministry says the number of fuel
thefts has fallen in recent years as the military has clamped
down on illegal groups, who in the past financed themselves
largely by stealing and selling crude oil, gasoline and diesel.	
    Colombia, once dismissed as a failing state, has been
improving its image by combating leftist rebels and attracting
foreign investment through looser regulations, a more
streamlined hydrocarbons agency, and lower taxes.	
    However, illegal armed groups, including the
Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia guerrillas, are still
powerful; and  attacks against oil and mining companies have
picked up this year. 	
    Colombia's national oil production has ramped up to a record
950,000 barrels per day as the improving security situation has
allowed greater exploitation of heavy crude areas, in addition
to incremental production increases at existing fields.	
	
 (Additional reporting by Luis Jaime Acosta; Writing By Eduardo
Garcia; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Andrea Evans)
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