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Congo rescue efforts still grounded days after deadly blast

Fears of further explosions prevented rescuers on Wednesday from reaching potential survivors of a devastating blast at an arms depot in the Congo Republic's capital city Brazzaville. At least 200 people were killed in the blast on March 4.


Efforts to search for survivors in the Brazzaville neighbourhoods flattened by a huge explosion on March 4 remain on hold because of fears of further blasts, international aid groups told France 24 on Wednesday.

The Red Cross and other aid agencies were still waiting to be given the green light to enter the disaster area surrounding the Mpila district in the Congo Republic's capital city.

The explosion catapulted rockets and shells into the surrounding densely populated neighbourhood leaving at least 200 people dead, hundreds injured and many thousands without homes. There are fears that hundreds of bodies lie buried beneath the rubble.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) told FRANCE 24 on Wednesday that unexploded shells still litter the area making it too dangerous for aid teams to search for survivors in the debris.

“It’s still a no-go area but we are evaluating the situation all the time,” Maria Puy Serra from the Central Africa Division of the ICRC told FRANCE 24.

“From the very first moment after the explosion, we had around 100 volunteers of the Red Cross ready to begin pulling out the wounded and dead but the level of security is still not at the level it needs to be because of all the unexploded ordnance,” she said.

“We have to be cautious. It is a disaster,” Puy Serra added.

Despite further smaller explosions some frantic relatives have taken the rescue effort into their own hands and undertook a treacherous search among the debris for their loved ones.

The ICRC is coordinating efforts with other aid groups on the ground, including the French Red Cross and liaising with the Congo government which was providing “very good cooperation”.

As well as focusing attention on making sure hospitals have enough medicine to treat the wounded, aid teams are also trying to register the hundreds of children who have lost contact with their parents or been left orphaned after the disaster.

The force of Sunday’s detonation was so strong it shook buildings in Kinshasa, the capital of neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo which is separated from Brazzaville by the three-mile-wide Congo River.

A reporter for the Associated Press in Brazzaville described the scene of devastation as a “wasteland of twisted metal, buckled homes and children’s shoes”.

The government has declared an official period of morning until all the victims have been buried.

Clearing a path to safety

Efforts to find those victims will depend on the work of the Congolese military and organisations like the British based charity Mines Advisory Group (MAG).

In the immediate aftermath of the explosion a MAG team joined soldiers in trying to cool down the affected zone with water where the heat and unexploded shells meant there was a high risk of further blasts.

Nick Roseveare chief executive of MAG told FRANCE24 on Wednesday that teams were currently trying to clear a safe path to allow rescue teams to enter.

“It is very, very difficult and dangerous because there is a huge amount of explosive debris scattered around the area. The last thing we want is more deaths and injuries that could be avoided,” Roseveare said.

Authorities were warned

The arms depot was the largest of its kind in the country, housing 250kg bombs.

It is not the first time this kind of disaster has struck in Africa. In 2002 over 1000 people were killed when a fire at a barracks in the Nigerian capital of Lagos sent rockets flying across the city.

In 2007 it was Mozambique’s turn to suffer the deadly consequences of a fire at an arms depot storing weapons from the civil war. More than 100 people were left dead in the capital Maputo. Similar blasts killed dozens in Tanzania in 2011 and 2009.

After the catastrophic consequences of Sunday’s fire in Brazzaville, attention has once again focused on the locations of these arms depots and the safety of the weapons they hold.

According to MAG’s head of operations in Congo, Lionel Cattaneo, the Congolese authorities had been warned about the dangers of storing munitions in such a densely populated residential area.

But the Congolese army, like those of many nations in a region prone to coups and armed uprisings, still prefer to keep the arms close at hand in case of any attempts to overthrow governments.

“They’re scared they’ll have difficulties getting their munitions if they have genuine need of them,” Cattaneo, told Reuters news agency.

“Clearly it was not ideal to keep them there. They were aware of the problems,” he added.

Cattaneo said the unwillingness of some African armies to get rid of obsolete munitions means the depots will remain a danger.

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