Government under fire after Congo arms blast

Mon Mar 5, 2012 6:03pm GMT
 

By Jonny Hogg and Media Coulibaly

BRAZZAVILLE (Reuters) - Standing in the wreckage of the small bar he owned in the Mpila district of Brazzaville, Simplice Gaylolo knew where he put the blame for the arms dump blast that ripped a hole in the Congo Republic's capital.

"We've lost absolutely everything ... it's the fault of the government for not taking precautions," Gaylolo complained as he gestured at the military base next door, surrounded by buildings flattened by the explosion in the early hours of Sunday.

Around 200 people were killed by the blast sparked by a fire at the Regiment Blinde arms dump, medical and local authorities said. A similar number were seriously wounded and an unknown number of more bodies are still hidden under tons of wreckage.

Living cheek by jowl with left-over munitions has been a feature of life in Brazzaville since the 1997 civil war, when rival factions of the army turned it into a battlefield for months.

Jammed up tight against the Blinde dump, neighbourhoods like Mpila stood little chance against a blast so fierce it blew out windows 4 km (2.5 miles) over the Congo river in Kinshasa, the capital of Democratic Republic of Congo.

"We shouldn't have been allowed to live so near the camp," said Victoire Ndzota, whose house was also wrecked.

"We've had no help, no assistance from the government, not even consolation. We'll just have to manage on our own," she shrugged, adding she and her family hoped to be taken in by friends.

While the oil-producer has seen coups and civil war since 1960 independence from France, it has remained largely peaceful since the 1999 ceasefire. President Denis Sassou-Nguesso's government has at various times since then acknowledged that something must be done about the inner-city arms stocks.

But somehow the promise never made it to reality.

Brazzaville on Monday was a city full of residents walking amid the destroyed houses with luggage balanced on their heads, with others searching debris for their belongings - or bodies.

"It is too hard to bear, this is a real catastrophe," said Christephane Ilich. "Look - if you start searching inside this bit here you will see bodies straight away," he said, pointing to a section of debris nearby.

The Congolese government was not available to comment on why it had not got around securing the Regiment Blinde site.

Lionel Cattanei, head of local operations for the Mines Advisory Group (MAG), an agency that works to alleviate the aftermath of conflict, said a project to destroy the munitions had been agreed but had not quite got off the ground.

"The problem was taken into account by the Congolese authorities," said Cattaneo. "The project has not been finalised yet, but these were problems that the government was aware of."

 
Powered by Reuters AlertNet. AlertNet provides news, images and insight from the world's disasters and conflicts and is brought to you by Reuters Foundation.