Mexico City: At least 66 people have been killed and 76 others injured in a devastating oil pipeline explosion in central Mexico, authorities said. It is believed the blast occurred after the pipeline was ruptured by suspected oil thieves in the town of Tlahuelilpan, in Hidalgo state, on Friday night, the BBC reported.

The pipeline went ablaze at around 7 p.m. (local time), when dozens of people were scrambling around a leak spot to collect fuel in the presence of the armed forces. TV footage showed large flames and people at the scene with severe burns as well as what appeared to be smouldering corpses scattered on the ground near the blaze.

Hidalgo Governor Omar Fayad told the media that the explosion was followed by the fire. The footage prompted questions about why authorities did not act.

Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador pledged to step up efforts to stamp out fuel theft after the tragedy.

He had launched a crackdown on December 27 and ordered pipelines to be closed temporarily to stop illegal taps draining billions of dollars from the heavily-indebted state oil firm Petroleos Mexicanos (Pemex).

“Far from stopping the fight … against fuel theft, it’s going to become stronger, we’ll continue until we’ve eradicated these practices,” said Obrador.

The government said soldiers reached the scene after Pemex detected the illegal tap, but could not secure the area in time.

Public Security Minister Alfonso Durazo told broadcaster Televisa: “At some point there were too many people there and the Army and military personnel withdrew to avoid problems.”

“It was just as they were withdrawing that the explosion occurred.”

Authorities have blamed fuel theft for previous explosions in Mexico. In 2010, a pipeline blew up in the state of Puebla, leaving 28 people dead and scores wounded.