Safety fears delay search for bodies at Congo blast site

Fear of unexploded ordnance Wednesday slowed down the search for bodies in Brazzaville where flags flew at half-mast to mourn nearly 200 victims from blasts at a munitions dump.

Red Cross workers have been kept away from the Mpila barracks site in the east of Brazzaville as experts carry out more checks for unexploded munitions in the deadliest accident of its kind in a decade, officials said.

"It's not easy," defence ministry spokesman Colonel Jean-Robert Obargui told AFP by phone.

"We are talking after all about a munitions explosion... It's difficult to go there as long as we have not studied the sector," he added.

Army officers and experts from the international Mines Advisory Group (MAG), which specialises in demining work, inspected the site on Wednesday, said Obargui, adding they would "mark out the sites for clean up" on Thursday.

Bullet rounds could still be heard exploding in the danger area on Wednesday.

The armouries in the area appeared to have been destroyed in the blast, Lionel Cattaneo, MAG's technical expert in Brazzaville, said.

Their main concern now was the danger that unexploded rockets, mortars and other ordnance -- scattered across the city by the force of the initial explosions -- could still kill unwary civilians.

"If tampered with, they can kill. Children, who are naturally inquisitive, are usually most at risk," said Cattaneo.

"We are concerned about the presence of unexploded devices," said a statement from the president of the Congolese Red Cross, Christian Sedar Ndinga.

"We hope to be able to get access very quickly (to the barracks' area) to recover any possible wounded and bodies," he added.

As well as killing nearly 200 people, Sunday's disaster left more than 1,300 wounded. The explosions, blamed on a short-circuit and fire, flattened hundreds of houses in Brazzaville, leaving more than 5,000 people homeless.

The blasts were felt as far away as Kinshasa, the capital of the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo, across the Congo river.

Benin President Thomas Boni Yayi, current chairman of the African Union, flew in to Brazzaville Wednesday with a medical team to express his condolences and solidarity.

He was accompanied by seven medical specialists in burns and five experts who will help in demining.

The Congolese human rights' observatory meanwhile criticised the authorities' handling of the crisis, saying they had failed "at all levels" to deal with the aftermath, especially with the homeless.

In the district around the Mpila barracks of the armoured regiment, soldiers were still restricting access to the area, letting only those who lived there pass.

Some people there were still trying to salvage their possessions from what was left of their homes.

"I'm ruined," said retired businessman Benigno Abel Elenga. "It's wiped me out." He had built houses there in 1967 and had been living off the rents, he explained.

"In 1997 (after the civil war) they promised us compensation, which didn't come. I don't believe in it any more," he said.

He said he would return to his home in Cuvette, in the north of the country, where "at least there, with a boat and a hammock, I'll be able to eat fish."

Nearby, bulldozers and diggers were starting to clear away the rubble as the emergency services kept an eye on the site.

Flags were flying at half-mast in the capital as the country mourned its dead.

"Mourning started on Tuesday and our flags remain at half-mast," government spokesman Bienvenu Okiemy said on national radio.

The mourning period is due to last until the victims have been buried, a date that has not yet been fixed.

Several schools were closed and there seemed to be limited activity in shops, offices and public transport in some parts of the capital.


roddy white howard stern howard stern free shipping day free shipping day golden globe nominations 2012 war in iraq