BRAZZAVILLE, Republic of Congo (AP) — International experts fought Monday to prevent a fire from reaching a second arms depot in the capital of the Republic of Congo, a day after a blaze set off a series of explosions so violent they flattened buildings, killing hundreds and trapping countless others under the falling debris.
Small detonations continued to shake Brazzaville, though the blasts were not nearly as loud as those that had convulsed the city on Sunday, splitting beams, buckling numerous buildings including two churches, and causing windows to explode in a 3-mile (5-kilometer) radius of the depot. Houses trembled as far away as the south of the country, and across the mighty Congo River in the heart of Kinshasa, the capital of the neighboring Central African nation of Congo.
"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," said Delphin Kibakidi, the spokesman of the local chapter of the Red Cross.
A large crowd had gathered outside the municipal morgue, which along with a nearby hospital had registered 206 deaths 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.
A team of unexploded ordnance experts from the Mine Advisory Group, funded by the U.S. State Department, said they were working with the country to help clear the area of danger. They reiterated concerns that the fire could spread to the second munitions depot.
"More lives are thought to be in danger from the threat of unexploded ordnance kicked out by the blast. Early reports indicate that the incident has seen potentially unstable projectiles scattered around urban areas, already causing a number of explosions and subsequent fatalities," a statement from the group said.
People are fleeing the neighborhoods closest to the epicenter of the blast. Kibakidi said that the Red Cross had set up two camps inside churches in the capital, and had already welcomed some 600 refugees.
"Today we can estimated that there are tens of thousands of people that are without shelter on the streets," he said.
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.
The country has already gotten a taste of this weekend's tragedy, after a 2009 explosion of munitions. Then, the government promised to move the depot used to store heavy weapons outside the populated heart of the city, said a diplomat who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak on the subject. On Sunday night, a government statement again promised to remove all the depots from the capital.
"The suffering and damage caused by these incidents underlines the importance of storing munitions safely and also the importance of providing states with the technical support that can enable them to do so," said the statement from the Mine Advisory Group. "It's far easier to avoid these incidents than to deal with the deadly fallout."
Besides the dead, Brazzaville's rudimentary health care system is expected to be overwhelmed by the number of injured which the government estimates at at least 1,500 people. One of the hospitals treating the wounded made an appeal to donors to give blood, according to U.N.-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.
The World Health Organization's Kinshasa office sent 2.5 metric tons of medication and supplies to treat traumatic injuries on the last boat to reach Brazzaville on Sunday, according to spokesman Eugene Kabambi.
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 U.S. 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.
Associated Press writers Michelle Faul in Johannesburg, Rukmini Callimachi in Dakar, Senegal, and Scott McDonald in Beijing contributed to this report.
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(Photo: AP Photo/Elie Mbena)
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