NAIROBI // A fire destroyed Kenya's main airport yesterday, forcing the indefinite suspension of international passenger flights and choking a vital travel gateway to east Africa.
The blaze lit up the early morning sky, the billowing clouds of black smoke engulfing the terminal buildings visible from miles away.
The intense heat repeatedly drove back firefighters who battled for five hours to put out the fire, the worst on record at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, east Africa's busiest.
Michael Kamau, cabinet secretary for transport said an investigation into the fire would start immediately but that it was too early to speculate on the cause.
The blaze stranded thousands of passengers at the airport and exporters of perishable produce, mainly flowers, feared for their export-driven business, a leading source of foreign exchange for Kenya alongside tea exports and tourism.
"This is disastrous," said Jane Ngige, chief executive officer of exporters association Kenya Flower Council.
There were no immediate reports of casualties from the fire, which started in the arrivals and immigration area. Business travellers and tourists were diverted to other airports in the region.
Shares in Kenya Airways, which uses the airport as its main hub, fell 2 per cent. Foreign carriers using the terminal include Emirates, British Airways, Qatar, KLM, Turkish Airways, South African Airlines and Ethiopian airlines.
Kenyan authorities said domestic flights and international cargo flights would resume later yesterday. Plans for international flights were to be announced later.
"Right now we've allowed the cargo to come in. Fruits, flower are coming in and are being processed. We hope we will be able to resume domestic flights," Kamau said.
Inside the gutted building, neat lines of metal trolleys with melted plastic handles were the only clear reminder that the building - whose roof partially collapsed - was once an airport terminal.
Some passengers searched for their luggage amid the charred ruins while outside, staff from Western embassies waved their national flags to attract passengers looking for a route home or a place to stay.
The fire coincided with the 15th anniversary of a twin attacks by terrorists on the United States Embassy in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, the commercial capital of neighbouring Tanzania.
But security analysts said there was as yet no indication of any link to Islamist militants that Kenyan soldiers are battling in neighbouring Somalia as part of an African Union force.
"It doesn't bear the hallmarks of an Al Shabaab operation but one never knows. It might be something new," said a regional security analyst.
The fire was a major blow to Kenya right at the start of the busiest period of the tourism season, a key sector for the Kenyan economy and an important source of foreign currency earnings.
Tourists to the world famous Masai Mara Game Reserve had cancelled their bookings, tour operators said.
Flights were diverted to Kenya's port city of Mombasa. Plans were underway to divert other flights to Eldoret in the north-west and Kisumu in the west, as well as to neighbouring countries including Uganda, Tanzania and Rwanda.
Passengers faced bus trips of hundreds of kilometres to reach the Kenyan capital.
"I had two appointments today in Nairobi which I have missed because of this," Susan Eklow, 42, from Sweden told Reuters in Mombasa.
"We haven't been told anything except to hang around here as a solution was sought," said Muses Heuwaggen, 45, a German tourist in Mombasa headed to Naivasha in the scenic Rift Valley.
By early afternoon, passengers began to grumble that minimal assistance was being offered. Passenger Medr Gudru, a 66-year-old German, had hoped to fly home yesterday but the fire stranded him with no information, he said.
"This is too much. It was very nice here but this is just a mess," he said.
Kenya Airways, the country's flagship carrier, diverted five flights to Mombasa and said all of its transit passengers were being moved to hotels. The airline reported that one passenger and one employee suffered from smoke inhalation.
As in many countries in East Africa, public sector services like police and fire units in Kenya are hobbled by small budgets and outdated or no equipment. Many of the responding units to the fire were from private security firms.
There may not have been fire engines available to respond, said some witnesses. The country's largest newspaper, The Daily Nation, reported last month that Nairobi County does not have a single working fire engine, and that three fire engines were auctioned off in 2009 because the county could not afford repairs.
"It is a disgrace that the entire Nairobi County does not have a public fire engine in working condition," the paper wrote in an editorial last month.
The paper said the collapse of the fire department means responses to disasters is in the hands of private companies and the military.
* Reuters with additional reporting by Associated Press