AT LEAST 200 people have been killed after an arms dump exploded in Brazzaville, ripping apart a nearby neighbourhood in the Congo Republic’s capital, medical and local authorities said.
Around 200 more were injured by the blasts which rocked the riverside capital around 8am local time, flattening houses near the scene and sending a plume of smoke high above the city.
“I saw someone being carried to hospital with their intestines hanging out. They had been hit by a shell,” one witness said as he was leaving the blast zone.
A nearby church, packed with worshippers, collapsed, said one witness.
Residents in Brazzaville described the scene as “apocalyptic.” Twisted sheets of metal – some of them formerly walls or roofs – littered the streets.
Witnesses said the impact of the blasts threw open doors of houses in the city centre. 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.”
An adviser in the office of president Denis Sassou-Nguesso, Betu Bangana, said: “According to sources at the central hospital we’re talking of around 200 dead and many injured”.
“Some people are still trapped in their houses ... They’re saying the entire neighbourhood of Mpila has been destroyed.”
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.
Panic spread to Kinshasa, two-and-a-half miles across the Congo River, which separates the former French colony of Congo Republic from the larger Democratic Republic of Congo. The blast was so strong it shattered windows in the neighbouring city. Both governments called for calm.
Congo Republic defence minister Charles Zacharie Bowao quickly dismissed any talk of a coup attempt or mutiny, and told state radio the explosions were the result of a fire in the arms depot at the Regiment Blinde base near the city centre.
“I heard at least five or six good sized explosions, which blew out the windows and brought down half the ceiling in our hotel,” Patrick Mair, an analyst with Control Risks in Brazzaville, said.
China’s Xinhua news agency cited Chinese officials as saying three Chinese construction workers were killed and dozens injured, some seriously. They were part of a group of about 140 Chinese workers from the Beijing Construction Engineering Group. Another presidential spokesman, Didier Boutsindi, 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 there are more deaths inside.”
He said his uncle was killed when his home collapsed on him as he was sleeping.
Oil-producing Congo Republic has suffered coups and a civil war since independence from France in 1960. However it has remained largely peaceful since president Sassou-Nguesso took power in a coup in 1997.