Mexico pipeline blast toll rises to 71

The blast in central Mexico killed at least 71 people and burned dozens of others.
The blast in central Mexico killed at least 71 people and burned dozens of others.

At least 71 people have been killed after a pipeline ruptured by suspected fuel thieves exploded in central Mexico, but President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has defended the army despite its failure to clear the site before the blast.

Forensic experts filled body bags with charred human remains in the field where the explosion occurred on Friday evening by the town of Tlahuelilpan in the state of Hidalgo, in one of the deadliest incidents to hit Mexico's troubled oil infrastructure in years.

One witness described how an almost festive atmosphere among hundreds of local residents filling containers with spilled fuel turned to horror as the blast scattered the crowd in all directions, incinerating clothing and inflicting severe burns.

A number of people at the scene told Reuters local shortages in gasoline supply since Lopez Obrador launched a drive to stamp out fuel theft had encouraged the rush to the gushing pipeline.

"Everyone came to see if they could get a bit of gasoline for their car, there isn't any in the gas stations," said farmer Isaias Garcia. "Some people came out burning and screaming."

To root out the theft, Lopez Obrador in late December ordered pipelines to be closed. But that led to shortages in central Mexico, including Hidalgo.

In an interview with local television, Hidalgo State Governor Omar Fayad said 71 people were killed and 76 people injured in the explosion, which happened as residents scrambled to get buckets and drums to a gush at the pipeline that authorities said rose up to 7 metres high.

The crackdown on fuel theft has become a litmus test of Lopez Obrador's drive to tackle corruption in Mexico - and to stop illegal taps draining billions of dollars from the heavily-indebted state oil firm Petroleos Mexicanos (Pemex).

Video on social media showed people filling buckets from the pipeline during daylight hours in the presence of the armed forces before the blast.

But Lopez Obrador, who vowed to continue the crackdown on theft, defended the army in the face of questions about why soldiers failed to prevent the tragedy.

He said the army had been right to avoid a confrontation due to the large number of people seeking to make off with a trove of free fuel - a few litres of which are worth more than the daily minimum wage in Mexico.

Australian Associated Press