An explosion tore through Venezuela's biggest oil refinery today, killing at least 24 people, wounding more than 80 others and halting operations at the huge facility.

It is the OPEC nation's worst industrial accident in recent memory.

State television showed footage of flames and billowing clouds of smoke coming from the refinery as dawn broke.

Nearby homes were damaged by the blast, and officials said a ten-year-old child was among the dead.

"Unfortunately, 24 people have died, the majority of them members of our National Guard," Vice President Elias Jaua told reporters in local Falcon state.

"Four people are in hospital right now, two were transferred to Zulia state and 50 people, thank God, were sent home after treatment because their injuries were not serious."

The deadly blast, caused by a gas leak, followed several minor accidents and unplanned stoppages that have afflicted state oil company PDVSA over the last decade, prompting critics to accuse President Hugo Chavez's government of mismanagement.

Energy Minister Rafael Ramirez said he expected production at the 645,000-barrels-per-day Amuay facility, which makes up two-thirds of the world's second largest refinery complex, to resume within two days.

He said the blaze hit nine storage tanks holding mostly crude oil and some processed fuels.

Located on a peninsula overlooking the Caribbean sea in the west of Venezuela, Amuay is part of the Paraguana Refining Centre, the second-biggest refinery complex in the world with an overall capacity of 955,000 bpd.

Amuay accounts for half of Venezuela's total domestic output, about 1.3m bpd, of refined fuels.

Mr Ramirez told reporters that PDVSA crews working through the night managed to reduce the intensity of the blaze by 80%, and that the company would not suffer any shortages.

"We have all our other storage facilities," he said.

He had earlier described the blast, which happened at about 1am local time, as a "significant explosion".

Health Minister Eugenia Sader traveled to a local hospital to visit some of the injured, and Falcon state governor Stella Lugo said the authorities were sparing no expense.

"We are deploying our whole fire service team, all our health team, the whole contingency plan on the orders of Comandante Chavez to first of all care for the people affected by this emergency," Lugo told state television.