On the eve of a close election, Prime Minister John Howard on Friday announced a $58 million relief fund to help those worst hit by a natural gas shortage caused by a refinery explosion.

Howard said the fund would be used to help the elderly and sick, pay at least 100,000 workers laid off as a result of the gas shutdown and offset the cost to businesses of converting to non-gas energy in southeast Victoria state."Its conjunction with the federal election campaign is a matter of sheer coincidence," Howard said about the timing of the an-nounce-ment.

A fire at Esso's Longford gas refinery on Sept. 25 killed two men and injured eight. The company has so far been unable to determine the cause of the blaze and explosions.

The plant supplied more than 80 percent of the natural gas for Australia's second-most populous state, and about 1.4 million households and 100,000 businesses may be without gas for at least two weeks.

Howard is locked in a close race with the Labor opposition for Saturday's national election. With the outcome of the election too close to call, the conservative prime minister Friday urged voters to return him with a clear majority in Parliament or throw him out of office.