Nearly 200 killed, 5,000 made homeless by Congo blast

Patrick Fort and Laudes-Martial Mbon
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People search the wreckage of Saint Louis Church

People search the wreckage of Saint Louis Church in the Mpila district of Brazzaville. The death toll from powerful explosions at a Congo munitions dump approached 200 on Tuesday, as international aid began to arrive to help treat over 1,300 wounded and assist 5,000 homeless

The death toll from powerful explosions at a Congo munitions dump approached 200 on Tuesday, as international aid began to arrive to help treat over 1,300 wounded and assist 5,000 homeless.

The explosions, blamed on a short-circuit and fire, flattened hundreds of houses in Brazzaville and were felt as far away as Kinshasa, the capital of the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo, across the Congo river.

Fire-fighters brought under control blazes that had threatened another munitions dump and the unexploded ordnance scattered across the disaster zone of debris, crumbled homes and twisted corrugated iron roofs.

"Our first-aid workers are currently unable to approach the ammunition store in Mpila, where the blasts occurred, because we fear that some devices may not have exploded," said Christian Sedar Ndinga, the president of the Congolese Red Cross.

"We are hopeful that we will soon be able to recover bodies and any injured people who may be there," he added in a statement.

International aid started to pour into the central African country to assist over-stretched medical facilities, as the army began searching for unexploded munitions that were sent flying over a wide area.

The government declared a period of national mourning from Tuesday until the victims' official funeral whose date has not yet been announced.

The number of dead "is close to 200", the communications minister Bienvenu Okiemy said on television Tuesday evening.

Health Minister Georges Moyen earlier told reporters that 180 bodies had been taken to morgues around the city, while the number of injured was put at 1,340.

Firemen on Monday put out the last two blazes which had raged close to another munitions depots in the Mpila barracks, in the capital's east, said Colonel Jean-Robert Obargui, a spokesman for the defence ministry.

"But one can't say for certain that a munitions' depot, about 100 metres (yards) from the one that exploded, no longer presents a risk," he said.

The post-explosion blaze at the first depot had threatened to spread to the second dump, according to the military. An operation to make all munitions safe was to start Tuesday, Obargui said.

"It's all about defusing and removing the munitions from where they are and taking them out of town to destroy them," he said.

The operation would be aided by the Mines Advisory Group, a British non-governmental organisation that specialises in the clearance of landmines and other unexploded ordnance.

"Orthopeadics is where most help is needed," Moyen said as he toured the hospital where dozens of patients, injured by exploding shells or by houses collapsing on them, were being treated, many in corridors or tents outside.

Dozens of French doctors and surgeons had arrived overnight from Monday to Tuesday to provide medical assistance, while Moroccan military doctors were setting up a field hospital.

Some 20 doctors from the Democratic Republic of Congo also arrived in Brazzaville, while Israel said it was buying emergency medical equipment in South Africa to ship to the Congo.

Gabon said it would send doctors and medical aid to Congo, while Belgium, the United States, and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon have also promised help.

The UN was expected to provided food and tents to the homeless.

The government has opened three centres for the homeless in the capital -- one at the Sacred Heart Cathedral, one in the Bacongo church of Our Lady of the Rosary, and one in the Nkombo covered market.

"We have to protect our brothers from the weather and so we need tents, canvas sheets, corrugated iron sheets, along with nails and rafters to build hangers," said Social Affairs Minister Emilienne Raoul.

Pope Benedict XVI sent a message of solidarity with the victims and their relatives, the Vatican announced.