Officials: 206 killed in Republic of Congo blasts

Associated Press
An injured man is treated by health workers at a hospital, after multiple explosions occurred at a munitions depot, in Brazzaville, Republic of Congo Sunday, March 4, 2012. Blasts rocked the capital of the Republic of Congo Sunday morning after a weapons depot caught fire, officials said, killing more than 200, wounding unknown numbers, and forcing 2,000 to flee their homes.(AP Photo/Elie Mbena)
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BRAZZAVILLE, Republic of Congo (AP) — Blasts rocked the capital of the Republic of Congo on Sunday, after a weapons depot caught fire, officials said, killing at least 206 people and pinning countless others underneath collapsed buildings, including a church.

A morgue in Brazzaville took in 136 bodies Sunday afternoon, as more continued to arrive. A local hospital reported at least 237 patients wounded in the blasts.

Didier Boutsindi of the presidential office said untold numbers of people were trapped in St. Louis church, which collapsed.

"Many of the faithful are trapped in the debris of the church," he said. "Several of the dead have been taken out and I confirm there are more deaths inside."

He said others were killed in their homes.

"My uncle is among the people killed," he said. "He was killed by the collapse of his house as he slept."

Sunday's blasts flattened buildings and shattered windows in the northern part of Brazzaville and sent more than 2,000 fleeing their homes, a witness said.

The munitions depot is near the president's private residence, but he was at his official residence in another part of town and was not hurt. President Denis Sassou-Nguesso later visited the morgue, a hospital and the military hospital. He did not speak publicly.

France is sending a shipment of emergency aid to Brazzaville after the explosions, Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said in a statement Sunday night. A ministry official had no immediate details on what kind of aid or how much was being sent.

The explosions echoed across the Congo River to Kinshasa, the capital of neighboring Congo, which is about six miles (10 kilometers) away. Residents there reported seeing plumes of smoke and feeling buildings shake.

Residents in Brazzaville described the scene as "apocalyptic." Twisted sheets of metal — some of them formerly walls or roofs — littered the streets. A hospital examination room lay in ruins.

Witnesses said the impact of the blasts threw open doors of houses in the city center. Phone networks were quickly overloaded by calls.

"It's like a tsunami passed through here," said Christine Ibata, a student. "The quarter has practically collapsed, with roofs of houses blown off."

Patients crowded into hospitals, some with torn clothes and shocked expressions. Some lay on the floor as medics struggled to treat the crowd.

Another explosion struck the area early in the afternoon, causing panic among those gathered there, including journalists.

Other witnesses said the wounded may have included hundreds of Chinese workers.

The official Xinhua News Agency quoted Chinese embassy officials as saying three Chinese workers were killed and dozens were injured in the explosions. It said that Duan Jinzhu, political counselor at the embassy, had confirmed the deaths. It was not known if the three workers were included in the morgue and hospital's counts.

Xinhua said the dormitory building of Huawei Technologies Ltd., China's largest maker of telecommunications equipment, was badly damaged, although no casualties were reported. They also said the windows of the Xinhua bureau were shattered.

Defense minister Charles Zacharie Boawo appeared on national television Sunday to urge calm in Brazzaville and in the neighboring capital of Kinshasa.

"The explosions that you have heard don't mean there is a war or a coup d'etat," he said. "Nor does it mean there was a mutiny. It is an incident caused by a fire at the munitions depot."

The blasts were also heard in Kinshasa, the capital of neighboring Congo. Government spokesman Lambert Mende said the blasts blew out some windows in the center of town, but that there were no reported deaths and that the situation had returned to normal after the blasts.

The Republic of Congo is often overshadowed by its much larger neighbor, Congo.

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Saleh Mwanamilongo in Kinshasa, Congo, and Scott McDonald in Beijing, contributed to this report.

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