DIWANIYA, Aug 29: Seventy-five people were killed in Iraq late on Monday when a blast ripped through scavengers siphoning petrol from pools around a breach in a disused pipeline.

The explosion in Diwaniya, 180kms south of Baghdad, wounded 26 people, who were taken to area hospitals with severe burns.

“Some of the wounded have burns in 75 per cent of their bodies,” a health official said, adding the death toll is expected to climb.

Witnesses said the blast, which is under investigation, occurred while a group of impoverished people were scooping fuel from two large pools.

Despite having the world’s third largest proven reserves of oil, Iraq is gripped by a fuel crisis blamed on sabotage attacks, ageing infrastructure and rampart corruption.

Fuel prices have soared as the Iraqi government phases out subsidies under an International Monetary Fund deal.

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said the government was working to ease the crisis, a source of anger for Iraqis. Smuggling and a black market for petrol products are thriving.

“I bless the enormous efforts that (the oil ministry) has made in overcoming the fuel crisis that citizens are facing lately,” he told reporters in Baghdad. The government wants to liberalise import rules on fuel products.

CRATER: Mutilated and mud-caked bodies lay by one wide crater 10 metres wide. One witness said there were still bodies in the pools and under mud that had not been recovered.

A police source said more than 50 were killed, although that figure could not be confirmed.

“The government is to blame for this. It raised the prices of petrol and forced people to do these dangerous things,” an elderly man at the scene said.

An oil ministry official in Baghdad said the pipe was one of many across Iraq that are out of operation due to the shortages. Residue left in the pipe could have caused the blast, he said.

The blast came one day after 20 Iraqi soldiers were killed in street fighting with Shia militiamen in Diwaniya, in some of the bloodiest clashes among rival powers in southern Iraq.

—Reuters

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