BRAZZAVILLE, Republic of Congo (AP) — Blasts rocked the capital of the Republic of Congo Sunday morning after a weapons depot caught fire, officials said, killing at least 206 people and forcing thousands to flee.
A morgue in Brazzaville took in 136 bodies Sunday afternoon, as more continued to arrive. A local hospital reported at least 237 patients wounded in the blasts.
Sunday's blasts flattened many buildings in the northern part of Brazzaville and sent more than 2,000 fleeing their homes. The munitions depot is near the president's private residence, but he was at his official residence in another part of town and was not hurt. President Denis Sassou-Nguesso later visited the morgue, a hospital and the military hospital.
The explosions shook houses in Brazzaville and echoed across the Congo River to the capital of the neighboring country.
Didier Boutsindi of the presidential office said untold numbers of people were trapped in a church that collapsed.
"Many of the faithful are trapped in the debris of the church," he said. "Several of the dead have been taken out and I confirm there are more deaths inside."
He said his uncle was killed when his home collapsed on him.
Another explosion struck the area early in the afternoon, causing panic among those gathered there, including journalists.
Other witnesses said the wounded may have included hundreds of Chinese workers.
The official Xinhua News Agency quoted Chinese embassy officials as saying three Chinese workers were killed and dozens were injured in the explosions. It said that Duan Jinzhu, political counselor at the embassy, had confirmed the deaths. It was not known if the three workers were included in the morgue and hospital's counts.
Many buildings in the area had collapsed, and twisted sheets of metal littered the streets.
"It's like a tsunami passed through here," said Christine Ibata, a student.
Defense minister Charles Zacharie Boawo appeared on national television Sunday to urge calm in Brazzaville and in the neighboring capital of Kinshasa.
"The explosions that you have heard don't mean there is a war or a coup d'etat," he said. "Nor does it mean there was a mutiny. It is an incident caused by a fire at the munitions depot. ... At this very moment our experts are there trying to extinguish this fire so this situation does not recur."
Witnesses said the impact of the blasts threw open doors of houses in the city center. Phone networks were quickly overloaded by calls.
The blasts were also heard in Kinshasa, the capital of neighboring Congo. Government spokesman Lambert Mende said the blasts blew out some windows in the center of town, but that there were no reported deaths and that the situation had returned to normal after the blasts.
The Republic of Congo is often overshadowed by its much larger neighbor, Congo.
Associated Press writers Saleh Mwanamilongo in Kinshasa, Congo and Scott McDonald in Beijing contributed to this report.