Fireball at illegal Mexico pipeline tap kills 66; 85 missing

This handout photo distributed by the Mexican Secretary of National Defence (Secretaria de Defensa Nacional) shows Mexican soldiers standing guard near a fire after a leaking gas pipeline triggered a blaze in Tlahuelilpan, Hidalgo state, on January 18, 2019. (AFP)
Updated 20 January 2019
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Fireball at illegal Mexico pipeline tap kills 66; 85 missing

  • Video from the scene earlier in the day showed what appeared to be gasoline spouting dozens of feet into the air

TLAHUELILPAN, Mexico: Forensic experts attempted to separate and count charred heaps of corpses in central Mexico on Saturday after a massive fireball erupted at an illegal pipeline tap, killing at least 66 people.
More than 85 other people on Saturday were listed as missing as relatives of the deceased and onlookers gathered around the scene of carnage.
Just a few feet from where the pipeline passed through an alfalfa field, the dead seem to have fallen in heaps, perhaps as they stumbled over each other or tried to help one another in the moments after a geyser of gasoline shot into the air Friday.
The leak was caused by an illegal pipeline tap in the small town of Tlahuelilpan, about 62 miles (100 kilometers) north of Mexico City, according to state oil company Petroleos Mexicanos, or Pemex.
Video footage showed dozens of people in an almost festive atmosphere gathered in a field where a duct had been breached by fuel thieves. Footage then showed flames shooting high into the air against a night sky and the pipeline ablaze. Screaming people ran from the explosion, some themselves burning and waving their arms.
On Saturday, several of the dead lay on their backs, their arms stretched out in agony. Some seemed to have covered their chests in a last attempt to protect themselves from the flames; another few black-charred corpses seemed to embrace each other in death.
Lost shoes were scattered around the scorched field, as were plastic jugs and jerry cans that the victims had carried to gather spilling fuel.
“Ay, no, where is my son?” wailed Hugo Olvera Estrada, whose 13-year-old son, Hugo Olvera Bautista, was at the spot where the fire erupted. Wrapped in a blanket outside a clinic, the man had already gone to six local hospitals looking for his child.
After returning home from middle school yesterday, his father recounted, the boy went to join the crowd scooping up gasoline. Olvera Estrada believed he was influenced by older and supposedly wise men from the town of about 20,000. “The older men brought him,” he said.
The tragedy came just three weeks after new President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador launched an offensive against fuel theft gangs that have drilled dangerous, illegal taps into pipelines an astounding 12,581 times in the first 10 months of 2018, an average of about 42 per day.
In an early morning press conference Saturday, Lopez Obrador vowed to continue the fight against the $3 billion-per-year illegal fuel theft industry.
“We are going to eradicate that which not only causes material damages, it is not only what the nation loses by this illegal trade, this black market of fuel, but the risk, the danger, the loss of human lives,” he said.
The war against fuel theft was a theme repeated by people in Tlahuelilpan, which is crossed by pipelines and located just a few miles from a refinery.
“What happened here should serve as an example for the whole nation to unite behind the fight that the president is carrying out against this ill,” said municipal health director Jorge Aguilar Lopez.
Another pipeline burst into flames earlier Friday in the neighboring state of Queretaro as a result of another illegal tap. Pemex said the fire near the city of San Juan del Rio was “in an unpopulated area and there is no risk to human beings.”
In December 2010, authorities also blamed oil thieves for a pipeline explosion in a central Mexico near the capital that killed 28 people, including 13 children.
That blast burned people and scorched homes, affecting 5,000 residents in an area six miles (10 kilometers) wide in San Martin Texmelucan.
Lopez Obrador launched the offensive against illegal taps soon after taking office Dec. 1, deploying 3,200 marines to guard pipelines and refineries.
His administration also shut down pipelines to detect and deter illegal taps, relying more on delivering fuel by tanker truck. There aren’t enough trucks, however, and long lines at gas stations have plagued several states.
In Tlahuelilpan, a long, chilling list of the missing was taped outside the window of the local clinic, where dozens of relatives waited for news in their search for loved ones.
Marciel Cervantes fears his brother, Isaac Aurelio Cervantes, is among those lost in Friday’s blast. He found the 26-year-old’s car parked on the road next to the field, and said his brother hasn’t answered his cellphone.
“The people already know what they’re getting into with this,” he said as he wrapped a blanket tightly around himself against the cold. “But they don’t understand.”


Many Indians rally behind Modi after Kashmir attack

Updated 39 min 52 sec ago
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Many Indians rally behind Modi after Kashmir attack

  • Tensions between the nuclear-armed rivals have ratcheted up
  • Modi has been blamed for weak rural incomes and an inability to provide employment to the millions of young Indians entering the job market each year

NEW DELHI: Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has suffered a series of political reverses in recent months but widespread anger after 40 troopers were killed in an Islamist militant attack last week could lead to a surge in support for his Hindu nationalist party.
As emotions run high following the deadliest attack on security forces in decades, Modi, who faces a general election by May, said he had given a free hand to security forces to avenge the killings in Kashmir, the region disputed with arch-foe Pakistan.
Tensions between the nuclear-armed rivals have ratcheted up and shouts of “down with Pakistan” and “blood for blood” have reverberated at funerals of the victims. Many Indians have held candle-lit marches across the country demanding the government “not forget, not forgive.”
The attack has been claimed by the Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammad militant group but the Pakistan government has denied any responsibility.
Rakesh Kumar, a 32-year-old part-time teacher in Kasba Bonli town in the western state of Rajasthan, said he was now inclined to vote for Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the national election after backing the main opposition Congress in a state vote late last year.
“If he teaches Pakistan a lesson, support for him will rise,” Kumar said in a telephone interview. “It’s a matter of the country’s security, and we need to see what he can do for us.”
The BJP was ousted from power in three major states, including Rajasthan, in December, and Modi has been blamed for weak rural incomes and an inability to provide employment to the millions of young Indians entering the job market each year.
Although still tipped to win, pollsters had said before the attack that the ruling party could fall short of a majority in the general election.
No polls have been published since the attack, but political analysts say the anti-Pakistan wave has become a rallying point for the BJP.
Yogendra Yadav, a former pollster and now a political activist, said the Kashmir attack would be a distraction from economic challenges facing the government.
“Ever since those issues have emerged, there have been systematic attempts to divert attention, some by design, some by accident,” he said.
“The consequence (of the attack) would be to bring the spotlight on issues of national security, which is exactly what the ruling party may have wanted.”
No compromise
The BJP has not lost time in underlining its nationalist credentials. Addressing a political rally on Sunday, party president Amit Shah ended a brief period of bipartisan politics by saying that Modi was better at responding to militant attacks than the previous government headed by Congress.
“This time it’s not a Congress government that is in power. The BJP government of Narendra Modi does not do any compromise in matters of national security,” Shah said to loud cheers.
“The BJP government will completely uproot terrorism. Narendra Modi’s political will to finish terrorism is the highest among global leaders.”
Mamata Banerjee, chief minister of West Bengal state and an outspoken critic of Modi, has lashed out at the BJP comments.
“We didn’t raise any questions (about the attack) because we thought we will be united in the fight (against terror),” she told reporters. “But now we see that we are silent and they are giving such speeches that it seems only they are patriots and the rest are outsiders.”
Modi has often spoken about adopting a more muscular approach to Pakistan, after a surprise visit to the neighbor in 2015 failed to improve ties.
BJP spokesman Nalin Kohli declined to say if the response to the attack would be an election issue for the party. But he defended party chief Shah’s comments as a reflection of the “national mood of grief and anger.”
In 2016, Indian forces carried out what they called a “surgical strike” on militant targets across the border in Pakistan in retaliation to an attack on an army camp in Kashmir.
Earlier this month, before last week’s attack, Modi said the strike had “shown to the world what will be the new policy and culture in India.”
On Monday, he said any hesitation to take action against militancy and those who support it was akin to encouraging the menace.
“Terrorism is a very serious threat to global peace and stability,” Modi said. “The brutal terrorist attack shows that the time for talks is over.”