(Updates throughout)


The Venezuelan government said that 26 people have now been confirmed killed in an explosion early Saturday at the Amuay oil refinery in the northwestern state of Falcon.

The nation's Vice President Elias Jaua told state-run VTV television that the fatalities have "increased in number to 26 compatriots, 17 of them members of the Bolivarian National Guard (militarized police).

Health Minister Eugenia Sader had previously told the press that 86 people were taken to Rafael Calle Sierra Hospital in the city of Punto Fijo where the refinery forms part of the Paraguana Refinery Complex, one of the world's biggest.

She said that 77 people "had left the hospital," either because they had only slight burns or were taken for treatment to a hospital in neighboring Zulia state, and that five patients are being treated in Punto Fijo, 528 kilometers (328 miles) west of Caracas.

Sader gave a list of the victims, of whom at least 12 were National Guard agents.

Jaua had said previously that two people were sent to Zulia with severe burns.

The vice president lamented the deaths caused by the accident, the result of a gas leak that formed a cloud which exploded at 1:11 a.m., producing a huge shock wave that damaged homes in the surrounding area along with a National Guard facility.

Oil and Mining Minister Rafael Ramirez said that the explosion "caused severe damage to National Guard Outpost 45," a military complex with a residential infrastructure, and blasted a part of the storage-tank area.

"In the end we had nine storage tanks hit by the explosion," the minister said, adding that when the fatal cloud was detected the alarm was sounded, but it all happened "too fast" and the explosion was "almost immediate."

"Right now we have the fire under control, though we just have to wait until the hydrocarbon residues in the tanks burn away - the billowing black smoke we observe is coming from that combustion," he said.

He said that all units are cooperating on measures to cordon off the area and continue working to secure the area.

Venezuelan television showed pictures of enormous columns of smoke rising from the industrial complex. EFE