Sunday, February 18, 2018

206 killed in blasts at arms depot in Republic of Congo

BRAZZAVILLE, Republic of Congo — Homes and buildings collapsed in the Congolese capital after an arms depot exploded Sunday, killing at least 206 people and entombing countless others in crushed structures including inside two churches that buckled while parishioners were celebrating Mass, officials and witnesses said.

The shock waves shattered windows in a three-mile radius surrounding the barracks storing the munitions, including across the river that separates Brazzaville, the capital of the Republic of Congo, from Kinshasa, the capital of the larger Central African nation of Congo. Government spokesman Bienvenu Okyemi blamed a short-circuit for the fire that set off the successive blasts.

"It's like a tsunami passed through here," said Christine Ibata, a student. "The roofs of houses were blown off."

About 1,500 were injured, Okyemi said on national radio.

The register of a morgue in Brazzaville already had 136 bodies Sunday afternoon, as more continued to arrive. A doctor at the capital's military hospital, who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak to the press, reported 70 more deaths.

Okyemi put the official toll at 146 dead, at a late-night news conference, but said rescue workers still were looking for corpses.

He said the main fire was under control, though some homes still were burning.

President Denis Sassou-Nguesso toured two hospitals and a morgue as injured people were being brought in including a 4-year-old boy who had lost his leg. The president was visibly moved, and in a statement read on state TV he said, "We have no less than 100 dead, many wounded and significant structural damage."

The president said that the government was doing it all it could to launch a rescue effort.

"We are trying to organize ourselves. I am asking the population to show courage and solidarity. … All the material and human loss will be evaluated and the government will take a just decision," Sassou-Nguesso said. "This tragedy is an accident."

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