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Hundreds die in Congo as fuel tanker explodes

Accident leaves dozens of families homeless, says UN

At least 230 people were killed and more than 196 injured when a petrol tanker flipped over and exploded in eastern Congo late on Friday night.

Some casualties were caught by the explosion as they rushed to siphon leaking fuel from the vehicle, but most died in their houses, as fire engulfed nearby buildings. The Red Cross said that 61 of the dead were children, 36 were women, and that the toll was likely to rise.

The tanker, carrying 49,000 litres of petrol, overturned at high speed near the village of Sange, 20 miles north of the town of Uvira, near the border with Burundi. 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 sent troops to help evacuate the area. "A fire started, and the people trying to siphon the fuel were killed or injured.

He added that a dozen homes had also been destroyed in the blaze. Most people in the area live in thatched huts made of dried leaves and hardened mud. Many of the dead had been watching Ghana's World Cup quarter-final in makeshift cinemas when the explosion happened.

Congo's weak government has difficulty providing even the most basic services, so UN peacekeepers airlifted at least 35 of the wounded to hospital in Bukavu, and others were taken to nearby hospitals by ambulance.

Desire Yuma, a local Red Cross official, said the organisation's workers were still collecting charred bodies from the scene.

It was not clear what sparked the explosion, although residents said someone collecting fuel may have lit a kerosene lamp as darkness fell.

Other officials, as well as the UN-backed station Radio Okapi, reported that the truck had begun its journey in Tanzania. Roads in the area are notoriously bad after years of war and neglect in the vast central African nation.

Villagers across Africa, unable to afford to buy fuel, frequently descend on damaged or disabled oil trucks to collect their leaking cargo, carrying it away in plastic jugs. The worst tragedies have occurred in Nigeria, where thousands have died as crowds have been caught in explosions when they tried to siphon fuel from ruptured or pierced oil pipelines.