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Congo arms depot blasts kill at least 200 after short circuit

05 March 2012

Huge explosions rocked a munitions depot at the Mpila military barracks in the east of the Republic of Congo's capital Brazzaville on March 4, with reports that at least 200 had been killed and up to 1,500 injured.

The force of the explosions blew out windows 6km across the Congo River in Kinshasa
The force of the explosions blew out windows 6km across the Congo River in Kinshasa

A number of wounded, many wearing military uniforms, were seen receiving first aid in the streets, according to AFP. The force of the explosions blew out windows across the Congo River in Kinshasa, the capital of neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo, from where a huge pall of smoke could be seen hanging over Brazzaville.

At least five strong explosions were heard between 8:00 am (0700 GMT) and 10:45 am (0945 GMT). There were also other weaker detonations which continued into the late morning, hampering firefighters and rescue workers 

Xinhua news agency said six Chinese workers were killed, one was missing and dozens injured in the blasts. They were all employees of the Beijing Construction Engineering Group, with about 140 Chinese workers at a nearby construction site when the blasts went off.

Houses near to the depot were completely destroyed, while others had windows and doors blown out and roofs lifted, and a Catholic church was also damaged when the explosions occurred during Sunday mass. Worshipers were reportedly still trapped in the church 24 hours later.

Government spokesman Bienvenu Okyemi said that a short circuit led to a fire - which then quickly spread through the depot. On March 4 he said the official death toll was 146, but that patrols were searching devastated buildings and other bodies might be found. Later news reports cited a figure of 206 deaths.

President Denis Sassou Nguesso took charge of relief operations.and announced an investigation into the tragedy. After visiting two hospitals, the visibly shaken President said the government was doing all it could and urged the Congolese "to show courage and solidarity". He also announced a curfew in the area and set up an exclusion zone.

The Congo government has asked international organisations to provide assistance in dealing with the disaster. French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said he had ordered his office to send emergency aid.

On March 5, a Brazzaville Red Cross worker said French, Russian and Congolese experts and firefighters were trying to stop the blaze reaching a second arms depot containing even heavier weapons.

Continuing explosions and fires have hampered attempts to rescue the hundreds of people believed to be trapped under debris. The death toll is expected to rise as teams begin clearing debris at sites including the Catholic Church, which collapsed when the tank regiment’s camp exploded.

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