Death toll rises above 200 in Republic of Congo munitions blasts

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REPORTING FROM JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA -- Emergency workers struggled Monday to prevent fires from reaching a second munitions depot in the Republic of Congo’s capital the day after devastating blasts at another ammunition storage site killed more than 200 people.

The international Mines Advisory Group warned that more people in Brazzaville were at risk of being killed in the coming days due to unexploded ammunition scattered by Sunday’s blasts.

Fires and smaller explosions continued Monday as rescuers tried to free victims buried in the rubble of buildings toppled by the original blasts.

The death toll reached 213 on Monday, the Associated Press reported, as rescue workers continued to pull bodies from the rubble. An estimated 1,500 people were injured, many of them critically. Many were buried when a Roman Catholic church collapsed on worshippers.


Government officials blamed faulty electrical wiring for Sunday’s explosions.

Congolese President Denis Sassou-Nguesso said the blasts were accidental and urged the country to face the tragedy with bravery. He visited two hospitals where many of the victims were taken by rescuers.

“We will face this,’ he said, according to news services. ‘We are trying to organize ourselves. I am asking the population to show courage and solidarity.”

Hardest hit was the neighborhood of Mpila, according to government authorities, where many houses and buildings were flattened.

The Mines Advisory Group, or MAG, which was working with authorities to deal with the crisis, said Monday that the blasts scattered ammunition across the city, and that the munitions were continuing to explode, causing more fatalities.

“The location means that this explosion is devastating, involving a huge number of casualties and enormous damage to the area,’ said Lionel Cattaneo, a MAG official in Brazzaville, in a statement. He added that it was critical to work quickly to avoid more loss of life.

‘Educating people about the risks, and removing and destroying these deadly items, are of critical concern,’ Cattaneo said. ‘We have the full support of the Republic of Congo government and have teams responding as a matter of urgency to help avoid further loss of life.”

According to a Small Arms Survey briefing paper last November, 210 people were killed last year in Africa by explosions at munitions depots. There were 35 explosions internationally, the most serious a March blast in Yemen that killed 150. The next most serious incident last year was a July blast in Turkmenistan that killed 100.

It’s a global problem: From 1998 to October 2011 there were 38 similar incidents in Africa, along with 57 in Eastern Europe and 138 in Asia.

The problem is exacerbated when huge munitions depots are located in crowded urban settings, in particular African or Asian cities. An incident in 2002 in Lagos, Nigeria, killed about 1,000.

“The suffering and damage caused by these incidents underlines the importance of storing munitions safely and also the importance of providing states with the technical support that can enable them to do so,’ Mines Advisory Group director Nick Roseveare said in a statement. “It’s far easier to avoid these incidents than to deal with the deadly fall out.’

People crowded outside the Brazzaville city morgue and a major hospital Sunday and Monday, searching for missing relatives.

The U.S. government offered assistance to help the country recover from the accident.


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--Robyn Dixon