Explosions at Airport in Congo Reportedly Kill at Least 40--Short Circuit or Dropped Ammunition Among Possible Causes

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Apr 15, 2000 - 11:03 AM

Explosions at Airport in Congo Reportedly Kill at Least 40--Short Circuit or Dropped Ammunition Among Possible Causes By Kamanga Mutond Associated Press Writer

KINSHASA, Congo (AP) - Distraught relatives milled through the hallways of a hospital overwhelmed by the dead and injured after explosions rocked Kinshasa's airport, killing at least 40 people, Belgium's Foreign Ministry said today.

There were conflicting explanations of what caused the blasts Friday at Kinshasa's N'Djili international airport, ranging from a short circuit to a soldier's dropping ammunition while unloading a plane full of weapons.

Congolese officials did not release any casualty figures and did not immediately comment on the report from Belgium, Congo's former colonial ruler. Belgium maintains substantial aid and diplomatic contacts with the central African country.

Congo's state-run radio, however, reported today that at least 10 people were killed and more bodies would likely be found.

Belgian RTL-TVI private television quoted Belgian officials in Brussels as saying about 50 people were dead and some 200 injured. The runway was strewn with debris and several planes were damaged, a Belgian embassy worker in Kinshasa told the station in a telephone interview.

Ambulances raced between the airport and city hospitals, ferrying those injured in the blasts, which reportedly sent fuel and ammunition depots up in flames and destroyed several buildings.

The Kinshasa General Hospital was swamped by the number of victims, said staff members who declined to give numbers.

U.N. sources in New York said there were unconfirmed reports that at least 27 people were injured. Family members, meanwhile, waited in hospital hallways and clustered around the emergency room hoping to get news of the missing.

The explosions set off a brief panic in Kinshasa, where people who live near the airport fled their homes for the city center, fearing that Congolese rebels fighting a civil war with the government might have reached the capital.

State-run radio reported that a series of explosions that shattered all the windows of the airport terminal were triggered when a short circuit sparked a fire at an army munitions depot.

The fire spread to a fuel depot, sparking further explosions, and engulfing two military planes in flames, the radio said.

Several buildings were set ablaze.

Secondary explosions persisted for more than two hours as ammunition blew up, showering the area with shrapnel, state-run radio reported.

An airport official, however, said the fire and explosions were triggered by a soldier who dropped ammunition while unloading a plane full of weapons. That explosion set fire to the fuel depot, from which flames spread to the munitions depot, according to the official who spoke on condition of anonymity. The airport was sealed off by soldiers and police and it was not possible to independently confirm either account.

U.N. spokesman David Wimhurst, speaking in New York, said the explosions involved a Boeing 707, though he did not know any further details.

In Brazzaville, the capital of neighboring Republic of Congo, residents gathered along the Congo River to watch flames from the explosion shooting into the air.

It was not clear if the explosions were related to Congo's 20-month civil war, which the government of President Laurent Kabila has been fighting against a variety of rebel armies backed by Uganda and Rwanda.


-- Carl Jenkins (Somewherepress@aol.com), April 15, 2000

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