Mass burial for Congolese explosion victims

RUKMINI CALLIMACHI Associated Press Published:

BRAZZAVILLE, Republic of Congo (AP) -- A nation in mourning will bury the more than 200 victims of last weekend's deadly blasts at a military armory in a mass funeral Saturday, state radio in the Republic of Congo reported Thursday.

Firmin Ayessa, chief of staff for President Denis Sassou-Nguesso, announced on state radio that the burials will take place at Brazzaville's main cemetery and said that the "government will always remain at the side of the families of the victims."

At least 246 people have been killed in the series of explosions that started Sunday morning, when the capital's main arms depots caught fire, catapulting rockets, mortars, shells and other ordnance into a busy residential district. The last detonations were heard Tuesday morning.

The blasts and fires they ignited prevented any coordinated rescue effort. The toll has been taken from bodies at the morgue of the main hospital, mostly transported there by the families themselves.

It's not known how many more victims are buried in a wasteland of collapsed concrete and twisted metal covering square mile (2.6 square kilometers) from the epicenter of the blasts, an armory of war-grade weaponry at the barracks of a tank regiment. The British-based Mines Advisory Group said it appeared all three munitions depots at that military camp blew up.

The explosions and shockwaves flattened homes, churches, businesses and government buildings.

"God, have pity on me. What will become of me without my husband? Why, Lord?" wept 26-year-old Gisele Nseka outside the municipal morgue where she had gone to search for his body.

Crowds gathered Thursday at the morgue and the main hospital, looking for relatives killed or injured.

State radio has put the toll at least 246 dead, 1,340 injured and 5,000 homeless.

Mines Advisory Group warned after an inspection Wednesday that there still is danger from unexploded rockets and mortars kicked out by the blasts.

"Much of the content of the munitions depot has been spread out over the city," said team leader Lionel Cattaneo. "This level of contamination is a huge risk to the public -- these are deadly items in a potentially unstable condition."

The group 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 in 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 small city of 1.3 million, has at least five such camps.

Sunday's blast, which the government blamed on a short circuit that ignited a fire, is not the first explosion at the tank regiment's armory. The government had promised to move the depot outside the city after an earlier, non-lethal blast in 2009. Many now say they feel betrayed.

"For years we have told the government that we can't put a military camp 100 yards (90 meters) from people's homes," said 65-year-old retiree Louis Okouli, whose house looks like it was hit by a cyclone.

The government announced a period of national mourning and again promised to move all arms depots outside the city.

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Associated Press writers Louis Okamba and Saleh Mwanamilongo contributed to this report.