National tragedy declared after Lagos arms depot blast

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The Independent Online

Nigeria's president declared a national disaster yesterday, saying a series of explosions at a munitions depot in the country's commercial capital had left at least 600 dead, many of them women and children who drowned in a canal while trying to get away.

In a broadcast on local radio stations, President Olusegun Obasanjo said that more than 600 bodies had been recovered since Sunday's disaster, including many from the Oke Afa canal in the city's northern Isolo neighbourhood.

"What happened in Lagos was a monumental tragedy," Mr Obasanjo said, calling the deaths a "national disaster".

The Lagos daily newspaper Vanguard estimated more than 2,000 people had been killed. State television cited unnamed witnesses as saying that between 750 and 1,000 bodies had been recovered in various parts of the city. The reports could not be independently confirmed.

Bola Ahmed Tinubu, the governor of Lagos, blamed the deaths on military negligence. "Ikeja mortuary is filled; they have started to use other local government facilities," Mr Tinubu said. "It's a disaster. We did not anticipate it would rise to this level."

Pope John Paul II sent a condolence message to Nigerian bishops, assuring his "closeness in prayer" for the victims and rescue workers.

Colonel Felix Chukwumah, an army spokesman, said the explosions began when a fire spread to the depot, which is surrounded by crowded slums and working-class neighbourhoods. He did not know how the fire started but a police officer said on Sunday that it had begun at a nearby petrol station. State and military officials were quick to assure people that the fire was accidental and not an indication of military unrest.

Repeated blasts sent fireballs towering over the city of 12 million people, propelling shrapnel and shattering windows at the country's international airport six miles away. The explosions continued into the early hours of the morning.

Hundreds of bodies were pulled out of the drainage canal on Monday but getting an accurate count was difficult, partly because volunteers were helping with the rescue effort and taking away some bodies to private homes.

Many victims apparently didn't realise how deep the canal was and drowned when they ran or drove vehicles into the water near the Ikeja military base, witnesses said. Mustafa Igama, a soldier at the base, said he saw "so many dead bodies" as he fled.

Mike Okiro, the Lagos police commissioner, said a number of people had been killed and injured several miles away while handling unexploded ammunition thrown out by the blasts.

In Isolo, about five miles from the destroyed weapons dump, a boy was casually tossing in his hands what looked like a hand grenade.