Sunday, March 04, 2012

Blasts At Weapons Depot Rock Republic of Congo

Blasts at Weapons Depot Rock Republic of Congo

Associated Press

A series of explosions Sunday at an armory within a neighborhood in the Republic of Congo's riverside capital of Brazzaville killed at least 206 people and injured hundreds more as fires swept through homes, churches and businesses.

Brazzaville residents reported thunderous explosions early Sunday, causing many to fear the country was under attack. Minister of Defense Charles Zacharie Boawo appeared on state television to urge calm in Brazzaville and in the neighboring capital of Kinshasa, saying the explosions stemmed from an accidental fire at the weapons depot.

While his statement was sure to bring some measure of relief to a country that has that has seen four coups and a civil war in the 51 years since it won independence from France, people close to the explosions described an "apocalyptic" scene of destruction.

"There have been houses destroyed and deaths, many deaths—a certain number of hundreds of deaths," said Landry Olita, the president's director of programs and events. "Me, myself, I heard the explosions…three huge detonations."

More than 2,000 residents fled the burning and densely populated neighborhood around the depot.

"It's like a tsunami passed through here," said Christine Ibata, a student. "The roofs of houses were blown off," the Associated Press reported.

Didier Boutsindi, a staffer in the presidential office, said people were trapped in the St. Louis church, which collapsed during Mass, the AP reported.

The death toll is expected to rise as rescuers remove debris and discover more bodies.

President Denis Sassou-Nguesso toured two hospitals and a morgue on Sunday but made no public comments.

Questions arose following the explosion about why such a large weapons depot was located within a residential neighborhood.

Mr. Olita said the armory was built during French colonial rule. The population of the leafy, tropical town has greatly expanded since independence.

French soldiers buttressed the city's military fortifications when Gen. Charles de Gaulle fled here and made Brazzaville his capital of "Free France" after Nazi Germany conquered France in 1940.

More recently, thousands of people were killed in the country's 1997-1999 civil war, echoing the violence in its war-fractured neighbor, Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Plans to move the armory never came to fruition, Mr. Olita said. "It has been around for a while, and since some time ago, we were going to relocate it from the neighborhood," he said. "It didn't happen."

France will send emergency aid to Brazzaville, Foreign Minister Alain Juppé said on Sunday.

The explosions took a heavy toll on businesses, including Chinese companies in the area. Among the hundreds of people injured were dozens of Chinese workers, including six killed at a nearby construction site for Beijing Construction Engineering Group Co., Xinhua news agency reported.

The contractor had about 140 Chinese workers at the site at the time of the explosions, Xinhua reported. A residential building housing employees of Huawei Technologies Co., a telecommunications company that is expanding in Africa, also was damaged.

Write to Drew Hinshaw at

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