Mass burial for Congolese explosion victims Sunday

March 8, 2012
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A statue of the Virgin Mary is all that remains of the St. Louis Catholic church, after a series of deadly explosions at a munitions depot devastated adjacent residential neighborhoods, killing at least 246 people, in Brazzaville, Republic of Congo Wednesday, March 7, 2012. Seen behind the statue are a new church building, center, and social housing, rear. Both were under construction at the time of the explosions. More than three days have passed since a catastrophic explosion laid waste to a section of the Republic of Congo's capital, and officials confirmed that as of Wednesday that no coordinated rescue effort had been launched, making it increasingly unlikely that any more people will be pulled alive from the flattened houses.(AP Photo)

BRAZZAVILLE, Republic of Congo (AP) — The more than 200 victims of last weekend's deadly arms depot blasts in the Republic of Congo's capital will be buried Sunday in a mass funeral, state radio reported.

Firmin Ayessa, chief of staff for President Denis Sassou-Nguesso, announced on state radio Thursday 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, mortar rounds, 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 a 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 shock waves 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.

The death toll is at least 246 dead, according to state radio, with 1,340 others injured and 5,000 left homeless.

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

"Much of the content of the munitions depot has been spread out over the city," team leader Lionel Cattaneo said. "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 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.


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