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Originally published Sunday, December 19, 2010 at 8:09 PM

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Thieves blamed in Mexico pipeline blast that kills 28

At least 28 people were killed and thousands of residents forced to flee a central Mexican city Sunday after a predawn pipeline explosion that may have been caused by oil thieves.

MEXICO CITY — At least 28 people were killed and thousands of residents forced to flee a central Mexican city Sunday after a predawn pipeline explosion that may have been caused by oil thieves.

At least 52 others were injured and more than 100 homes damaged in what witnesses described as a series of blasts at a pumping station in San Martin Texmelucan.

The explosion flooded a stream with black crude and sparked "rivers of fire" in the streets, said Valentin Meneses, government secretary of the central state of Puebla.

Fires had been put out by early afternoon and the oil pipeline was closed.

The state-run oil company, Petroleos Mexicanos, or Pemex, said the pumping station handled crude and the blast was possibly caused by thieves trying to tap into pipelines that are under high pressure.

The head of Pemex, Juan Jose Suarez, said the section of pipeline near where the blast occurred had been illegally tapped 60 times. He said there have been 550 cases of illegal tapping nationwide.

Pemex said it detected a sudden loss of pressure and then fires in two ducts. Meneses said that whoever attempted to tamper with the duct apparently lost control because of the high pressure. He said 32 houses were destroyed and 83 damaged by the explosion.

San Martin Texmelucan is a city of about 130,000 people, according to 2005 government figures, where farming is important to the area's economy, along with a manufacturing sector that makes chemical and petrochemical products, pharmaceuticals, textiles and metals, the city's website says.

President Felipe Calderón issued a statement promising to pursue any wrongdoers. Federal authorities have assumed responsibility for the investigation.

Criminals tap remote pipelines, sometimes building pipelines of their own, to siphon off hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of oil each year, Pemex has said.

Mexico-based CEO Alberto Islas says several gangs are responsible, including the Zetas drug cartel, a former group of trained military assassins that is causing much of the drug violence in Mexico as it battles its old ally, the Gulf cartel.

In 2009, the U.S. Justice Department said U.S. refineries bought millions of dollars' worth of oil stolen from Mexican government pipelines and smuggled across the border in illegal operations led by Mexican drug cartels expanding their reach.

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Two Texas oil-company officials were sentenced to probation in September for their roles in the sale of petroleum products stolen from Mexico.

Pemex sued five companies in the United States in June for allegedly buying stolen Mexican petroleum products.

Also in June, police arrested 13 people who they said excavated a 500-foot tunnel under a busy neighborhood in Mexico City to steal fuel from oil-company pipelines.

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