Image: A soldier stands guard
Ariana Cubillos  /  AP
A soldier stands guard outside a military arms depot after a fire in Maracay, Venezuela, on Sunday.
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updated 1/30/2011 4:53:49 PM ET 2011-01-30T21:53:49

A fire and a series of explosions tore through a military arms depot Sunday, killing one person and leading authorities to evacuate thousands of people from the area.

About 10,000 residents were evacuated from areas stretching several kilometers (miles) from the site, said Rafael Isea, governor of Aragua state where Maracay is located. He told state television it was a preventive measure because the burning ammunition was producing powerful blasts.

The cause of the pre-dawn fire was unclear. Hours after the initial explosions, the faint booms of smaller blasts could be heard in the distance as clouds of white smoke rose from the area alongside hills in Maracay, a city 60 miles (100 kilometers) west of the capital, Caracas.

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Vice President Elias Jaua said on state television that authorities were investigating what caused the fire and explosions — and suggested they weren't ruling out sabotage.

"We can't rule out any hypothesis since Venezuela is a country threatened by strong international powers," Jaua said. "We know of groups that act in a crazy manner within our territory, but it can't be determined yet if it was provoked or if it was an accident." He did not elaborate.

One woman was killed, probably by the explosions, Isea said. Three people were injured in traffic accidents amid the chaos as people fled, he said.

"It seemed like they were bombing us," said Yandry Rey, 30, whose lives with her husband, a military officer, and two children in housing adjacent to the munitions storage area.

She said the explosions shook her house and woke her up, and that they fled with their two children. Rey said she saw a "ball of fire" when she opened the door, and that the blasts sent vibrations through the floor.

Hours later, she and several other people who had fled the military housing complex were resting on the edge of a ditch in the shade. Rey's daughter still wore her nightshirt.

Another woman, 27-year-old Genesis Baricot, said her husband returned to their house and saw that the blasts had knocked off their front door and caused part of the roof in the kitchen to collapse.

She said she didn't yet know where the family would go.

"What are they going to do with us?" she asked.

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Soldiers and police blocked exits on a major highway that runs close to the arms depot.

National Guard Maj. Gen. Luis Motta Dominguez said authorities had the blaze contained and were waiting for the blasts of smaller ammunition to die down. He told Venezuela's Union Radio that what was left was "a lot of smoke."

State television showed firefighters working to extinguish what remained of the fire.

Cavim, Venezuela's military arms manufacturer, said in a statement that the explosions began at 4:45 a.m. local time (4:15 a.m. EST; 0915 GMT).

The fire burned four artillery-munitions storage sites out of 20 that Cavim maintains in Maracay, Gen. Cliver Alcala Cordones told the state news agency.

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Associated Press writers Fabiola Sanchez and Christopher Toothaker, in Caracas, contributed to this report.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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