At least 14 people were killed when a state-owned gas pipeline exploded in the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh early today, authorities said.

The blast sparked a massive fire which destroyed homes and forced the evacuation of neighbouring villages.

Vandana Chanana, a top official of the state-run Gas Authority of India Ltd (Gail), said 14 people died and 15 others were injured in the blaze following the explosion in Nagaram village in the state's East Godavari district.

"The fire has been extinguished now and rescue operations are on," he said.

The injured were taken to nearby hospitals where doctors said the condition of at least six of them was critical, company officials said.

Andhra Pradesh Home Minister N Chinna Rajappa said the explosion happened at about 5.30am local time in Nagaram, the site of a connecting station for the gas company.

It sent flames shooting up into the pre-dawn sky. The fire burned for more than three hours before it was brought under control, Mr Rajappa said.

"The extent of damage is being assessed," he added.

Company officials said it was too early to say what could have caused the blast, and, in New Delhi, Oil Minister Dharmendra Pradhan told reporters that the federal government has set up a panel to investigate the explosion.

Nagaram residents said they had complained about the lack of maintenance of the gas pipelines, but their complaints were ignored.

"People are angry that Gail authorities didn't pay heed when they complained that the pipes had become rusty," said Andhra Pradesh Finance Minister Yanamala Ramakrishnudu.

Witnesses said flames rose more than 25m into the air, scorching the tops of coconut and palm trees, and sending dense black clouds of smoke into the sky. Villagers ran out of their homes and crowded the streets of Nagaram. Scores of houses and shops were gutted, officials said.

Residents of neighbouring villages were evacuated to safer areas, said East Godavari district collector Neetu Kumari Prasad.

Nagaram is about 560km east of the state capital, Hyderabad.

Two weeks ago, six people were killed and 29 others injured in an explosion and a subsequent gas pipeline leak at India's biggest government-run steel plant in the central Indian state of Chattisgarh.

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