Congo holds two days of mourning for fire death victims

Democratic Republic of Congo President Joseph Kabila on Sunday declared two days of mourning for 235 people who burned to death when a fuel truck exploded and reduced homes to ashes.

Flags will fly at half mast around the the country on Monday and Tuesday “in memory of the brothers and sisters brutally taken from us”, Kabila said in a message broadcast on national radio and television.

Most of the dead, including around 60 children and 30 women, were buried in three mass graves late Saturday in Sange, where flames engulfed dozens of earth-and-straw homes after the tanker overturned the day before.

The toll rose to 235 on Sunday after three people badly burned by the fire died overnight, said the governor of Sud-Kivu province, Marcellin Cishambo.

The UN mission in DR Congo, MONUSCO, said nearly 200 people were injured in the fire, with 32 suffering serious burns taken by helicopter to two hospitals in regional capital Bukavu to the north and Uvira to the south.

Cishambo said 105 people were still in hospital and that a similar number had been able to go home after treatment, adding that the toll could rise as more people succumb to their injuries.

The health minister visited some of the wounded in hospital and “left a tonne of medicines which he had brought with him,” while the social affairs and interior ministers also travelled to the region, the governor added.

The UN-backed Okapi radio station reported that Uvira hospital was short of medicines and that the wounded had been forced to buy themselves supplies from pharmacies in the town.

The accident had left people in the town of around 50,000 “very sad, very traumatised. Some of them are very stressed,” local aid worker Emmanuel Umbwe told AFP on Sunday.

Dozens of people, many of them children, crowded around the tanker coming from Tanzania after it overturned late on Friday to scavenge its contents, officials and witnesses said.

The driver of the truck managed to escape, though injured, and told local people to get away because of the risk of an explosion, witnesses said.

“Petrol began to leak out but instead of fleeing people came to collect the fuel,” said regional government spokesman Vincent Kabanga, explaining why the accident had claimed so many victims.

The flames spread rapidly to a local cinema hall where a crowd had gathered to follow World Cup football matches being played in South Africa.

Explosions caused by fuel leaks from tankers after accidents or pipelines that have been punctured by thieves often claim hundreds of lives in the region as locals rush to scoop up fuel.

In October 1998, over 1,000 people died at Jesse in Nigeria when a pipeline exploded as people tried to steal oil, while in 2000 and 2006 three such accidents killed a total of nearly 600 people, also in Nigeria.

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