Firefighters managed to extinguish one of three burning storage tanks at Venezuela's biggest refinery on Tuesday, President Hugo Chavez said, in line with the authorities' target to restart the facility by the end of the week.
Chavez broke the news in a series of pre-dawn Tweets, saying the fire at one tank at the Amuay refinery had been put out, while the intensity of the blaze in one of the other two had fallen by 75 percent.
"We continue battling with our heroic firefighters from (state oil company) PDVSA," he said, adding that he was talking by telephone with Energy Minister Rafael Ramirez at the scene.
"With God's help, we will succeed!"
Ramirez told Reuters in an exclusive interview on Monday that the 645,000 barrel-per-day facility could restart operations on Friday, and that the three burning tanks would be extinguished within two days.
An explosion on Saturday at Amuay killed 48 people and pushed up U.S. fuel prices in markets that were already bullish because of a threat that Tropical Storm Isaac could disrupt refinery operations on the U.S. Gulf Coast.
Ramirez said Venezuela currently had no plans to import fuel, and that the rise in U.S. gasoline prices would not last.
The blast has spurred fresh criticism and claims of mismanagement by PDVSA. Traders say the impact on fuel markets may continue even after Amuay is up and running again. Tank farm accidents often cause problems with gasoline blending, which means PDVSA may have to boost imports.
It was one of the most deadly oil industry accidents in recent years, nearing the toll of the 1997 fire at India's Visakhapatnam refinery that killed 56, and topping the 2005 blast at BP's Texas City refinery in which 15 people died.
Chavez said at the scene on Monday that he was creating a fund worth about $23 million that would help pay for clean-up operations and replace homes wrecked by the pre-dawn blast.
He said 60 new houses were ready now, 60 more would be finished soon, and a further 137 new homes would be handed over next month. Meanwhile, PDVSA has sent vehicles to move residents and their belongings to safety, as well as food and water.
Neither Chavez's government nor PDVSA is likely to face legal fallout from the disaster because his allies closely control Venezuela's regulatory agencies and the justice system.