Nigerian petrol thieves suspected as blast kills 200

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The Independent Online

A huge explosion tore through an eastern suburb of the Nigerian city of Lagos yesterday, killing up to 200, after people had reportedly gathered to collect oil leaking from a ruptured pipeline that had been damaged by villagers looking for free fuel.

It is a story all too familiar for a country awash with oil riches, but where vast numbers live in abject poverty. Stealing fuel by puncturing pipelines is common practice in some of the poorest areas of Nigeria, many of them criss-crossed with pipelines.

"More than 100 people were burnt to death and beyond recognition following the explosion," said a Red Cross worker, Abiodun Orebiyi. "We could not discover any survivors or injured people. We are searching for them."

At least 50 corpses were piled up close to the pipeline while a further dozen or so bodies could be seen on the ground in the village of Ilado on the eastern edge of Lagos. Workers in rubber gloves picked through the remains and collected body parts for burial in shallow graves near by. Reports suggested the intensity of the explosion was exacerbated after 500 jerry cans that had been filled with fuel and left near by, ignited after the initial explosion.

The Lagos Police commissioner Emmanuel Adebayo said that between 150 and 200 people had been killed in the blast. "You can see the corpses. Some are burnt to ash," he said. "Others are remnants. We estimate 150 to 200 people died. They are going to be given a mass burial."

Lagos is a sprawling mass of slums and many of the city's 13 million residents regularly tap into the state oil pipelines looking for fuel to cook with or to sell on the black market.

Parts of the pipeline, owned by the state company Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC), bore visible marks of drilling in several places, suggesting thieves had targeted the pipe before the explosion. Olanrewaju Saka-Shenayon, a Lagos State government official, said: "This is caused by hunger and greed. If you've got no job and you're hungry, you take advantage of anything to feed your family. Anyone who takes this kind of risk is desperate."

Nigeria has a long history of deadly explosions and more than 1,500 Nigerians have been killed by pipeline explosions alone in the past 10 years. Only last year, 50 people were incinerated just miles away from the latest blast after thieves tried to siphon off fuel, while a pipeline blast in 1998 killed more than 1,000 people in the southern Delta state.

Nigeria is Africa's largest producer of oil, pumping 2.5 million barrels of crude per day and America's fifth largest supplier. Despite extensive natural resources and income from oil, consecutive Nigerian governments have earned a reputation for corruption and done little to ensure profits from its oil industry reach the country's estimated 120 million inhabitants.

This is changing under the government of Olusegun Obasanjo, which has made great strides in cracking down on corruption by arresting hundreds of people including some senior figures.

The majority of Nigeria's oil is produced in the Niger Delta region where a militant group, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger, has recently taken up arms against the state, orchestrating a series of high-profile attacks on oil installations and kidnapping a number of foreign oil workers.