Small detonations shook the capital of the Republic of Congo for a second day Monday, after a fire inside a weapons depot set off a series of explosions so violent that they flattened houses, businesses and churches, killing hundreds and trapping countless others under the falling debris.
Firefighters had put out the main blaze in the north of Brazzaville, and were working to extinguish several smaller fires that were still burning on Monday. Officials said they were doing everything they could to avoid that the fires spread to a second depot of war-grade weapons.
A large crowd had gathered outside the municipal morgue, which along with a nearby hospital had registered 206 deaths in the hours after the first blast on Sunday.
In a two-hour stretch on Monday, another seven bodies were brought in to the morgue, bringing the death toll to at least 213. That number is expected to rise as rescuers begin clearing the debris including from St. Louis Catholic Church where dozens of worshippers were attending Sunday Mass when the building buckled under the force of the blast.
People are fleeing the neighborhoods closest to the epicenter of the blast. The local chapter of the Red Cross had set up two camps inside churches in the capital, and had already welcomed some 600 people, said spokesman Delphin Kibakidi.
“Today we can estimated that there are tens of thousands of people that are without shelter on the streets,” he said. “For the time being, there are Russian, French and Congolese experts in the field who are trying to put out the fires. Their goal is to avoid that the fires reach a second depot of even heavier weapons.”
Government spokesman Bienvenu Okyemi blamed a short circuit for the fire that set off the blasts. In a statement read to the nation, President Denis Sassou-Nguesso described the ordeal as “a tragic accident.” And the country's defense minister rushed to reassure people in this nation, which is still recovering from a 1997 civil war, that the fire was not a sign of a coup or a mutiny.
Besides the dead, Brazzaville's rudimentary health care system is expected to be overwhelmed by the number of injured which the government estimates at least 1,500 people. One of the hospitals treating the wounded made an appeal to donors to give blood, according to UN-run Radio Okapi, based in Kinshasa, the capital of the neighboring Central African nation of Congo.
Foreign ambassadors including from the United States and France met with government officials early Monday to discuss aid for the rescue effort, said a diplomat who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press.
Efforts to retrieve the wounded and dead were hampered by the continuing detonations on Sunday and Monday, which set off smaller fires.
Condolences and offers of help poured in from around the world. British Foreign Secretary William Hague said he was “greatly saddened” by the news of the tragedy.
The US Embassy issued a statement saying: “The United States of America stands ready to assist the Government of the Republic of Congo to assist the victims of this tragedy.”
Among the dead were the employees of a Chinese construction firm which had 140 Chinese workers at its construction site when the first blast happened. China's official Xinhua News Agency reported Monday that six Chinese nationals died in the explosions, and another person was missing. Dozens of their workers were injured.