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[BRASÍLIA] A hearing into a massive graft scandal at Brazil's state oil firm Petrobras was interrupted on Thursday when a protester unleashed several rodents including mice, hamsters and gerbils on proceedings, sparking chaos at Congress.
The small brown creatures were released by an unknown suspect in the middle of the hearing, interrupting a statement by ruling Workers Party (PT) treasurer Joao Vaccari Neto and briefly creating chaos among journalists and politicians as the rodents scampered across the floor.
Security removed the person apparently responsible, as onlookers said the hearing was being turned into a "circus." The suspect was not named.
One lawmaker pointed his finger at a colleague and insisted he be reprimanded.
"What happened must not go unpunished," said Jorge Sola, accusing opposition lawmaker Waldir Soares de Oliveira of the Social Democracy Party.
"This must be recorded in the minutes," Mr Sola added.
Mr De Oliveira denied any involvement in the prank.
Security officers removed the offending creatures and the proceedings resumed.
Vaccari, who denies wrongdoing, is one of 27 people facing trial on corruption and money laundering charges relating to the graft scandal which broke 13 months ago.
He is accused of receiving millions in bribes as part of a multibillion-dollar kickback scheme embroiling some of Brazil's top politicians.
Vaccari, who allegedly received cash worth US$1.2 million, said the fact that several suspects had mentioned him in their plea bargains did not constitute proof against him and that any money he had received comprised legal political donations.
The scandal has wiped tens of billions of dollars off Petrobras' market value and forced it to delay publishing externally audited accounts from last year.
The company told AFP on Thursday it still has no definite date to release the data, ten weeks after unveiling unaudited accounts showing profits down nine percent on the previous year.
Struggling to assess potential asset write-downs owing to the scandal, Petrobras indicated in its internal audit it had discovered 88.6 billion reais (S$39.4 billion) of asset overvaluations but could not calculate losses stemming directly from the kickbacks affair.
President Dilma Rousseff, also of the PT party, meanwhile made a spirited defence of the state oil giant.
"Petrobras is still standing. It has cleaned up what it needed to clean up and removed those who abused their positions to enrich themselves," Ms Rousseff said in Rio, where she opened a low-cost housing development.
"To defend Petrobras is to defend Brazil," she added.
Energy Minister Eduardo Braga earlier called for the amendment of legislation obliging Petrobras involvement in the extraction of all "pre-salt" oil deposits in the Atlantic under layers of salt.
Current legislation affords Petrobras sole operator status and a guaranteed 30 percent minimum share in pre-salt concessions, a role which the company could no longer be held responsible for, Mr Braga said.