updated 12/27/2005 9:09:32 PM ET 2005-12-28T02:09:32

An accidental fireworks explosion touched off a blaze that raced through a busy strip mall in southeastern Venezuela, killing at least 12 people and injuring five others, authorities said Tuesday.

The death toll from Monday’s fire was expected to rise as crews picked through the charred debris where some victims could be trapped, said civil defense official Antonio Rivero. State-run Bolivarian News Agency reported at least 18 people had died.

The fireworks were stored in a gun shop in the southeastern city of San Felix, about 310 miles southeast of the capital of Caracas. Officials said it was unclear what set them off.

A fire engulfed the shop then quickly spread to five neighboring stores packed with shoppers. Authorities didn’t say if the victims had been inside the gun store or in the adjoining shops.

State broadcaster Venezolana de Television showed footage of bulldozers pulling away heaps of blackened wreckage and gaping holes carved out of storefronts by the fire.

Officials said firefighters were having difficulty accessing certain areas amid high temperatures and the threat of bullets going off.

Though illegal, fireworks are readily available in Venezuela, especially during year-end holidays. Many vendors stash their caches in storerooms or boxes out of sight.

Local mayor Clemente Scotto said the tragedy provided Venezuelans “an opportunity to reflect” on their love of fireworks and what a grave threat they pose.

“Some call them the happiness of Christmas,” said Scotto. “They have turned out to be the sorrow of Christmas.”

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