A massive fire broke out at an illegal pipeline tap in central Mexico overnight, killing at least 21 people and injuring 71 more, just as the government wages a major crack-down on fuel theft.
Scores of locals with jerry cans and buckets had been collecting gasoline that was gushing from a leaking pipeline when an explosion occurred, according to witnesses.
Video taken in the aftermath showed desperate people fleeing the scene, screaming for help, as the enormous fire lit up the night sky in Tlahuelilpan, in Hidalgo state, about 105 kilometres north of Mexico City.
The tragedy comes as the federal government is waging a highly publicised war on fuel theft, a problem that cost Mexico an estimated US$3 billion in 2017.
President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador traveled to the scene in the early hours of Saturday.
Federal and state firefighters and ambulances run by state oil company Pemex rushed to help victims with burns and take the wounded to hospitals.
Mexico is regularly rocked by deadly explosions at illegal pipeline taps, a dangerous but lucrative business whose players include powerful drug cartels and corrupt Pemex insiders.
The tragedy comes as anti-corruption crusader Lopez Obrador presses implementation of a controversial fuel theft prevention plan.
The government has shut off key pipelines until they can be fully secured and deployed the army to guard Pemex production facilities.
But the strategy to fight the problem led to severe gasoline and diesel shortages across much of the country, including Mexico City, forcing people to queue for hours – sometimes days – to fill up their vehicles.
The president, who took office on December 1, has vowed to keep up the fight and asked Mexicans to be patient. (AFP)