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Power blackouts hit nearly half of Venezuela

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September 3, 2013 08:42 PM EST | AP

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CARACAS, Venezuela — Venezuela's main power distribution network failed Tuesday, depriving nearly half the country of electricity and knocking out traffic lights and water service in much of Caracas, which normally escapes such outages.

Electrical Energy Minister Jesse Chacon said on state TV that the failure was in the "backbone" that carries electricity from the Bajo Caroni region, where 60 percent of Venezuela's power is generated.

He said 11 of 23 states lost power and that, in the Andean region near Colombia, the neighboring country was helping supply electricity.

Power that was lost at midday was restored in Caracas by nightfall, but officials said blackouts could persist in other regions.

Despite possession the world's largest proven oil reserves, Venezuela has been plagued in recent years by worsening power outages. They have, however, rarely affected metropolitan Caracas, home to more than one-sixth of the country's 28 million people.

President Nicolas Maduro said the oil industry, the lifeblood of the economy, was not affected by the outage. He called the outage "strange" via Twitter and blamed "the extreme right-wing," as he has in the past, without offering evidence.

Maduro also said he had ordered the military to "protect the entire country."

The capital's subway service was temporarily interrupted, and authorities evacuated riders from several trains.

Opposition politicians say the government, while spending billions on programs for the poor, hasn't invested enough in the electrical grid and generating plants to keep up with growing demand.

Authorities say delays in several initiatives designed to boost electricity output are partly to blame.

Chacon, a longtime close aide to the late President Hugo Chavez, was named energy minister after Maduro's April election. The previous energy minister was a brother of Chavez, Argenis.