Venezuela accuses US of 'terrorist attack' on oil facility

Caracas (AFP) –


Venezuelans resumed work Thursday after a weeklong hiatus forced by an unprecedented nationwide blackout, but President Nicolas Maduro's regime faced fresh problems including a "terrorist attack" on an oil facility.

Three storage tanks at the Petro San Felix heavy oil processing plant in eastern Venezuela caught fire late Wednesday, Oil Minister Manuel Quevedo told state television. There were no reports of casualties.

Quevedo blamed Guaido, the head of Venezuela's opposition-ruled congress and self-proclaimed interim president backed by 50 countries, accusing him of collusion with the United States.

"There was a terrorist act that we denounce at an international level," Quevedo told the VTV network.

On Twitter, the minister said Guaido and the opposition were "intensifying terrorist incursions" against the state-owned oil company PDVSA to impact Venezuela's vital crude exports.

"Traitors!" he wrote, adding "the US has decided to rob Venezuela of its oil resources... (and) wants blood to flow."

There was no immediate reaction from the United States, which this week ordered all its diplomats out of Venezuela.

Oil accounts for 90 percent of Venezuela's export revenues. Production has long slid, crimped by years of underinvestment and mismanagement. Stepped-up US sanctions have further trimmed exports.

- Lines in Caracas -

Meanwhile in Caracas and other cities, Venezuelans who had been prevented working for a week because of the blackout returned to their activities as best they could after power was restored.

The government called all public sector employees back to their offices, but state schools remained closed for another day.

Long lines formed in the capital for the few buses running, and in front of banks. The city's subway, which usually transports two million people daily, was partly operating, and extremely crowded.

The resumption marked a degree of relief after the lack of electricity, which deepened Venezuela's long economic crisis.

But things remained far from normal, with many shops remaining shuttered. The national industry federation Conindustria said it would take several days for some activities to come back.

"During the blackout we didn't open," Carlos Zuniga, a 23-year-old employee in a shoe store, told AFP.

"Business is bad. In a crisis on this scale, people don't buy shoes when they are looking for water and food," he said.

According to an economic analysis firm, Ecoanalitica, the blackout cost Venezuela $875 million and paralyzed industry, including the all-important oil sector.

Maduro accused the US of causing the power outage. Experts said that was unlikely and years of infrastructure neglect and a persistent brain drain of qualified engineers was more probable.

- Fraying diplomacy -

The United States, Latin American countries and many European Union states recognize Guaido as the caretaker leader of Venezuela, and urge Maduro to call early presidential elections.

Maduro, though, refuses to do so. He has backing from Russia and China, which have invested tens of billions of dollars in Venezuela, as well as Cuba and Iran.

In a sign of the fraying diplomacy concerning Venezuela, dozens of officials from Latin America, as well as the US, Canada and some European countries, walked out of a UN convention in Austria on the issue of drugs as Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza took the podium.

A spokesperson for the US delegation said Arreaza and his team "represent the illegitimate government of Nicolas Maduro, and thus cannot be considered as speaking on behalf of the Venezuelan people."

Arreaza said in his speech that the US "has threatened our people with a military aggression" and was taking "unilateral economic steps" in the form of sanctions costing Venezuela billions of dollars.

Those sanctions have impacted other buyers of Venezuelan crude.

India's biggest private oil refiner Reliance Industries told AFP on Thursday it had capped oil imports from Venezuela following pressure from the United States.

"Our US subsidiary has completely stopped all business with Venezuela's state-owned oil company, PDVSA, and its global parent has not increased crude purchases," Reliance said in an emailed statement.

"Reliance has halted all supply of diluent to PDVSA and will not resume such sales until sanctions are lifted," added the company, which is owned by India's richest man Mukesh Ambani.