Rescuers Try To Keep Fire From 2nd Depot In Congo

Published March 6, 2012 5:45AM (EST)

BRAZZAVILLE, Republic of Congo (AP) — International experts fought to prevent a fire from reaching a second arms depot and exploding more munitions, a day after a blaze set off blasts so violent they flattened buildings, killing hundreds and trapping countless others under debris.

Small detonations continued to shake Brazzaville, capital of the Republic of Congo, on Monday. Sunday's blasts buckled numerous buildings including two churches and a hospital and exploded windows nearly 10 kilometers away across the Congo River in the heart of Kinshasa, capital of the neighboring Central African nation of Congo.

"For the time being, there are Russian, French and Congolese experts in the field who are trying to put out the fires. Their goal is to prevent the fires reaching a second depot of even heavier weapons," said Delphin Kibakidi, spokesman of the local Red Cross.

He said people were emerging from the disaster zone with "unbearable wounds," arms and legs amputated, organs falling out.

Nearly 48 hours after the first eruptions, rescuers still were unable to reach hundreds believed trapped under debris because of ongoing explosions that catapulted unexploded ordnance miles (kilometers) away. There are fears the many small fires ignited by the blasts could suck away oxygen needed by any entombed survivors.

Government spokesman Bienvenu Okyemi blamed a short circuit for the fire that set off the blasts. President Denis Sassou-Nguesso described the ordeal as "a tragic accident." The defense minister rushed to reassure people that the fire was not a sign of a coup or a mutiny.

In one joyful reunion amid the disaster, Laurette Ngoy found her 3-month-old baby. "I was bathing the baby when suddenly I heard this huge explosion and ran out into the street in a panic, totally naked." She handed the child to a neighbor and returned to her home to collect clothes when a second blast exploded. The neighbor fled with the baby.

"This has been the very worst day that I'll never forget in my life," she said of her wanderings for nearly 24 hours trying to find her child. On Tuesday, she finally ran into the neighbor, still clutching her baby.

Marian Ambeto was struck on the head by debris from an exploding shell. "I never could have imagined that in an instant, buildings in front of me could cave in like a cardboard carton," said the 32-year-old."It was like the films we watch on television."

A large crowd gathered outside the municipal morgue, which along with a nearby hospital had registered 206 deaths hours after the first blast on Sunday.

In two hours Monday, another seven corpses were brought in, bringing the death toll to at least 213.

Mathias Ikinga sobbed over the body of his only son, a boy he mourned "who was really intelligent and had a promising future."

Some of the bereaved labored under their loss and anger at their government.

Successive governments "have never understood that a depot of weapons of war in a residential neighborhood represents a great danger to its citizens," raged Ikinga, 32.

"It's far easier to avoid these incidents than to deal with the deadly fallout," said Chris Loughran from the Mine Advisory Group's headquarters in Manchester, Britain. The group has a team in the country working on cleaning up munitions contamination from a 1997 civil war.

Loughran said unplanned explosions at munitions sites are an increasing phenomenon, with more than 50 explosions in 34 countries since 2009. Many are in developing countries that store munitions in cheap or unsafe buildings, and countries where conflicts have ended and munitions are aging.

In coup-prone countries, it's common to have a barracks and munitions depot in populated cities. Brazzaville, a city of 1.3 million, has at least five such camps.

The country got a taste of this weekend's tragedy three years ago, after a 2009 explosion of munitions. Then, the government promised to move such depots outside the city, said a diplomat who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak on the subject. On Sunday night, a government statement again promised to remove all munitions depots from the capital.

The death toll is expected to rise as rescuers begin clearing the debris including from St. Louis Catholic Church, in front of a tank regiment's camp where the arms depot exploded. Dozens of worshippers were attending Sunday Mass when the building buckled under the blast.

Mission chief Jan Diplo of Medecins Sans Frontieres, or Doctors Without Borders, said he had registered 936 injured people being treated at three hospitals, where his organization donated kits used to treat burns. Other injured people went to private hospitals, while dozens more injured were still arriving Monday, he said.

"Most of the injuries we're seeing are traumatic injuries from people who have had houses collapse on them," Diplo said.

He said the overburdened hospitals needed everything, especially supplies for surgery. One hospital treating the injured made an appeal on national radio for donors to give blood.

The World Health Organization's Kinshasa office sent 2.5 metric tons of medication to treat traumatic injuries on Sunday, said spokesman Eugene Kabambi.

A team of unexploded ordnance experts from the Mine Advisory Group, funded by the European Union, said they were working with the government to help clear the area of danger.

"More lives are thought to be in danger from the threat of unexploded ordnance kicked out by the blast. Early reports indicate that the incident has seen potentially unstable projectiles scattered around urban areas, already causing a number of explosions and subsequent fatalities," a statement from the group said.

People are fleeing the neighborhoods closest to the epicenter of the blast. Kibakidi said that the Red Cross had set up two camps inside churches, and had already welcomed some 3,000 refugees. The government says it has taken charge of the many children found wandering alone, apparently separated from their parents in the chaos.

"It is estimated that thousands have effectively been displaced and lost their homes. Several schools were also destroyed by the blasts," said a U.S. Embassy statement reporting on a meeting of foreign ambassadors with government officials Monday. It said the United States, other embassies and non-governmental organization were working with the government on how best to deliver aid.

Among the dead were six employees of a Chinese construction firm which had 140 Chinese workers at its construction site when the first blast happened, according to the Chinese news agency Xinhua. Dozens were injured.

In the deadliest such explosion in Africa, more than 1,000 people were killed when a Nigerian armory sent rockets, bombs and shells flying into heavily populated districts of Lagos in 2002. Hundreds fell into a canal and drowned amid a stampede to get away from the danger.


Faul reported from Johannesburg. Rukmini Callimachi in Dakar, Senegal, and Scott McDonald in Beijing contributed to this report.

By Salon Staff

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