Power station blast adds to sense of chaos in Venezuela

People collect water from a broken pipeline during a blackout affecting running water in Caracas, Venezuela, Monday, March 11, 2019. The blackout has intensified the toxic political climate, with opposition leader Juan Guaido blaming alleged government corruption and mismanagement and President Nicolas Maduro accusing his U.S.-backed adversary of sabotaging the national grid. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)
Motorists stop on the road near a working cell phone tower during rolling blackouts in Caracas, Venezuela, Monday, March 11, 2019. Some say the cell phone tower is one of the few in regular operation, transforming the spot into one of the city’s most popular destinations. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)
National Assembly President Juan Guaido, who declared himself interim president of Venezuela, leads a session of the opposition-controlled assembly in Caracas, Venezuela, Monday, March 11, 2019. The U.S.-backed leader of the National Assembly has blamed the blackouts that began Thursday on alleged government corruption and mismanagement. (AP Photo/Eduardo Verdugo)
Enrique Quiroga, a moto-taxi driver, speaks with his son in Spain as he and other motorists stop on the road near a working cell phone tower during rolling blackouts in Caracas, Venezuela, Monday, March 11, 2019. Some say the cell phone tower is one of the few in regular operation, transforming the spot into one of the city’s most popular destinations. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)
A man carries plastic bottles filled with water he collected from a pipeline left open, during rolling blackouts which affects the water pumps in people's homes, in Caracas, Venezuela, Monday, March 11, 2019. The blackout has intensified the toxic political climate, with opposition leader Juan Guaido blaming alleged government corruption and mismanagement and President Nicolas Maduro accusing his U.S.-backed adversary of sabotaging the national grid. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)

CARACAS, Venezuela — An explosion rocked a power station in the Venezuelan capital early Monday, witnesses said, adding to the crisis created by days of nationwide power cuts.

Flames rose overnight from the electrical facility in the Baruta area of Caracas. The blast contributed to a sense of chaos among Venezuelans already struggling with an economic crisis and a bitter political standoff.

Residents in Baruta gathered on a footbridge with a clear view of charred, smoldering transformers and electrical equipment.

Opposition leader Juan Guaido said three of four electricity transformers servicing the area were knocked out and that state engineers were unable to fix them. The U.S.-backed leader of the National Assembly has blamed the blackouts that began Thursday on alleged government corruption and mismanagement.

Critical conductors had overheated at the hydroelectric station at the Guri Dam, the cornerstone of Venezuela's electrical grid, said Winston Cabas, the head of Venezuela's electrical engineers union, which opposes the government. He disputed government allegations that the dam was the target of sabotage and blamed the problem on a lack of maintenance as well as the departure of skilled workers from the troubled country over the years.

"The system is vulnerable, fragile and unstable," he said.

President Nicolas Maduro has accused Guaido and the United States of staging a "cyberattack" on Venezuela's power grid. Information Minister Jorge Rodriguez earlier described it as a cyberattack on the dam's operating system, which signals to machines whether to boost or diminish power based on capacity and demand.

The U.S. dismisses the allegation.

The nationwide outages have intensified the misery of Venezuelans. Since water pumps began failing without power, more people have been collecting water from mountain springs, and many are scrounging for scarce cash to pay for food in the few shops that are open.

"We're desperate," said Luis Sanabria, a Caracas resident who joined dozens of other people filling up bottles from a city spring.

Long lines of cars wait at the small number of gasoline stations with electricity. Some Venezuelan hospitals are caring for their most critically ill patients with the help of generators, but many operated without power, raising concerns about vulnerable patients who rely on oxygen concentrators, dialysis machines and other equipment.

Also Monday, Spain's airline pilots union asked for Spanish airline Air Europa to stop flying to Venezuela after one of its crews was attacked at gunpoint in Caracas. The Sepla union said two pilots and eight more crew members of a flight from Madrid were assaulted on Saturday while going from the airport to their hotel in the Venezuelan capital.

The crew told the union that their van was surrounded by men on three motorbikes who later fled after an exchange of gunfire with a person the crew believed to be a plainclothes police officer. None of the crew members was injured.

Air Europa responded to the attack by ordering the crews of flights to Venezuela to not spend the night in the country, according to the union.

The administration of U.S. President Donald Trump, meanwhile, imposed sanctions on a Moscow-based bank jointly owned by Russian and Venezuelan state-owned companies, for allegedly trying to circumvent U.S. sanctions on the South American country.

The U.S. Department of the Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control said it is targeting Evrofinance Mosnarbank for its support of the Petroleos de Venezuela S.A., an entity previously targeted by sanctions in January.

Evrofinance said in a statement late Monday that it is carrying out its activities as normal despite the announcement and pledged to "meet its obligations to the clients and partners in full."

The U.S. and more than 50 governments recognize Guaido as interim president of the country and say Maduro wasn't legitimately re-elected last year because opposition candidates weren't permitted to run. Maduro says he is the target of a U.S. coup plot.

U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton on Monday tweeted that Maduro had driven Venezuela "into absolute suffering and collapse" and urged the Venezuelan military to turn against him. He said the military should accept an amnesty offer from Guaido as well as the opportunity for relief from U.S. sanctions.

Venezuela's military commanders have remained loyal to Maduro, though hundreds of lower-ranking military personnel have deserted the armed forces.

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