Congo: UN says at least 220 dead in oil explosion
By PATRICE CITERA AND TODD PITMAN
Associated Press Writers
A fuel tanker flipped over and burst in flames in eastern Congo overnight, killing at least 220 villagers and wounding more than 200 — some of whom had rushed to siphon leaking liquid from the vehicle illegally, the U.N. and local officials said Saturday.
The truck was transporting fuel when it overturned at high speed late Friday near the village of Sange, around 20 miles (30 kilometers) north of the town of Uvira near the Burundi border. Sange is located between Uvira and the Congolese provincial capital, Bukavu, further to the north.
After the accident, “people came out and tried to siphon the contents of the tanker,” said Madnodje Mounoubai, a spokesman for the U.N. peacekeeping mission, which has rushed troops to help evacuate survivors.
“A fire started, and the people trying to siphon the fuel were killed or injured,” Mounoubai told The Associated Press. “Right now, we are talking about 220 dead and 111 wounded, but this is not the final toll. This is a very fluid situation.”
James Reynolds, the deputy head of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Congo, said at least 219 people died — 208 immediately, and another 11 from burn wounds after they were taken to surrounding medical facilities.
“Many of the bodies were burnt far beyond recognition,” the Kinshasa-based Reynolds said. “It’ a terrible scene,” and a tragedy, he added, “for people who didn’t have very much to begin with.”
Mounoubai said at least a dozen homes near the accident site had been destroyed in the blaze. Most people in the area live in thatched huts made of dried leaves and hardened mud. Reynolds said a teeming market nearby had also been reduced to ashes.
Desperately poor people in Congo — which is still struggling to recover from a 1998-2002 war — often descend quickly around damaged or disabled oil trucks leaking fuel on roads and highways, carting it away with plastic jugs, unaware of the danger of doing so.
Some of the worst tragedies have occurred in Nigeria, where thousands have died as crowds siphoned fuel from ruptured or pierced oil pipelines that subsequently exploded. In a separate accident Friday involving another fuel truck, an out-of-control gasoline tanker flipped over and exploded outside the gates of a local hospital in northern Nigeria, killing 14 people in an inferno in Gombe state.
Reynolds said the ICRC has dispatched medical supplies and body bags to collect the dead and help wounded alongside local volunteers for Congo’s Red Cross.
“We’re doing our best to ensure that the wounded are treated as well as possible,” Reynolds said. “The more lightly burned or less injured are being treated on the spot at a health center in Sange.”
A U.N. helicopter has so far evacuated 35 wounded to Bukavu, Mounoubai said. Other peacekeepers were taking more wounded to nearby hospitals by ambulance.
It was not immediately clear what caused the explosion.
Reynolds said the casualty toll was likely high in part because, although the town was small, “it was densely populated, it was close to a market, and a lot of the houses are made with thatched roofing.”
After the truck flipped over and began gushing fuel, “a big crowd rapidly gathered around to see what happened,” Reynolds said. “And sometime after, the leaking oil caught fire and the fire spread extremely quickly.”
Mounoubai said the truck overturned around dusk and was carrying fuel from Bukavu to Uvira. Other officials and U.N.-backed Radio Okapi reported the truck had begun its journey in Tanzania.
The U.N.’s acting special representative to Congo, Leila Zerrougui, expressed condolences for the tragedy and said the U.N. “will do everything possible to help authorities and assist victims.”
Pitman reported from Dakar, Senegal.