At least 230 people died when a fuel tanker overturned and exploded in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, unleashing a fireball that tore through mud homes and cinemas packed with people watching World Cup football. Witnesses described scenes of devastation in the village of Sange, where houses were burnt and bodies littered the streets. Some people died while trying to steal fuel leaking from the tanker, but most were killed in their mud-walled homes or in the cinemas. Many of the bodies were charred beyond recognition.
"It's a terrible scene. There are lots of dead bodies on the streets. The population is in terrible shock - no one is crying or speaking," said Jean-Claude Kibala, the vice governor of South Kivu province. The truck overturned as it was trying to pass a minibus late on Friday near Sange, around 30km north of Uvira, a town near the Burundi border, said Mana Lungwe, manager of the Congolese oil company that owns the truck. The vehicle began gushing oil, and then burst into flames an hour later, he said. Mr Lungwe said the driver was injured in the accident and taken to a local clinic before the blast occurred. After the accident, "people came out and tried to siphon the contents of the tanker," said Madnodje Mounoubai, a spokesman for the UN peacekeeping mission, which has rushed troops to help evacuate survivors. "A fire started, and the people trying to siphon the fuel were killed or injured," Mr Mounoubai said. "Right now, we are talking about 220 dead and 111 wounded, but this is not the final toll. This is a very fluid situation." Another UN source gave higher figures which put the death toll at 230 and said 196 people had been injured. UN helicopters began airlifting injured people to hospital, while DR Congo's army, which lost a number of men in the blast, has sent soldiers in to help with the rescue. The tragedy struck as millions of football fans across Africa were watching Ghana, the continent's last team in the World Cup, play Uruguay in the quarterfinals of the tournament on Friday evening. For many, who have no electricity at home, makeshift cinema halls are the only option for watching the match. "The petrol filled the cinema room where they were, so they were killed in the explosion," Mubaya Mumasura, who lost three family members, said by phone from Sange. "I am also a victim of this now - I don't know what to do with myself I am so sad. I want the government to assist all the victims and help us," Mr Mumasura added. James Reynolds, the deputy head of the International Committee of the Red Cross in DR Congo, said they had dispatched medical supplies and body bags to collect the dead and help wounded alongside local volunteers for DR Congo's Red Cross. "Many of the bodies were burnt far beyond recognition," the Mr Reynolds said. "It's a terrible scene," and a tragedy, he added, "for people who didn't have very much to begin with." Aid workers were trying to identify bodies before they were buried, but many were completely charred. Mr Reynolds said the casualty toll was probably high in part because, although the Sange is small, "it was densely populated, it was close to a market, and a lot of the houses are made with thatched roofing." After the truck flipped over and began gushing fuel, "a big crowd rapidly gathered around to see what happened," Mr Reynolds said. "And sometime after, the leaking oil caught fire and the fire spread extremely quickly." Alain Ilunga, the deputy CEO of DR Congo's storage and distribution company, which is already investigating the incident, said the truck was carrying 49,000 litres of petrol at the time. At least a dozen homes near the accident site had been destroyed in the blaze. Most people in the area live in thatched huts made of dried leaves and hardened mud. A teeming market nearby had also been reduced to ashes. Roads in the area are notoriously bad after years of war and neglect in the vast central African nation. Desperately poor people in DR Congo - which is still struggling to recover from a 1998-2002 war - often descend quickly around damaged or disabled oil trucks leaking fuel on roads and highways, carting it away with plastic jugs, unaware of the danger of doing so. There have been numerous similar accidents across Africa, where crowds gather around fuel tankers involved in crashes, only for the tanker to explode. * With reporting by Reuters and Associated press