24 March 2007

Mozambique: Explosions - Death Toll Reaches 100

Maputo — The death toll from Thursday's massive explosions at the military arsenal in the outer Maputo suburb of Malhazine has now risen to 100, Radio Mozambique reported on Saturday morning.

The number of people treated for injuries in the city's three main hospitals stands at over 450.

It is feared that the death toll may rise still higher, partly because of the critical condition of some of those under intensive care in Maputo Central Hospital, and partly because not all the bodies have yet been collected.

Reporters from the Maputo daily "Noticias" report that in the neighbourhoods closest to the arsenal they could see bits and pieces of human bodies lying on the ground, or even lodged in trees. These remains are fast decomposing in the intense heat that Maputo has experienced over the past few days.

Hundreds of houses were damaged or destroyed, and rescue teams have been picking their way through the rubble. It is all too likely that some bodies still remain to be pulled from the ruins.

Maputo Central Hospital morgue was a scene of despair as people whose loved ones had gone missing during the panic went to see if they could identify them among the dead. But identification was a grisly task given the mutilated state of some of the bodies - there were even cases of bodies brought to the morgue missing their heads.

Military teams were combing the area on Friday recovering the shells, rockets and other devices that had been flung out from the arsenal in the explosions. Some of these projectiles were enormous - they were clearly shells for large pieces of artillery.

The fire at the arsenal had the effect of an enemy bombardment of the city, as all manner of rockets and shells were hurled into the air - but this bombardment was entirely random and uncoordinated. Anything within a radius of several kilometres from the arsenal was at risk.

Among the key economic infrastructures hit was the Infulene electricity sub-station - this handles electricity transmitted to much of Maputo, Gaza and Inhambane provinces. So when the sub- station was knocked out on Thursday, a vast swathe of southern Mozambique was plunged into darkness.

A team from the Mozambican electricity company worked throughout Friday to repair the damage, but could not say when power would be restored.

Another victim of the explosions was the Infulene psychiatric hospital, severely damaged when three rockets slammed into it.

Some of the shells scattered around the Maputo suburbs are unexploded, and residents fear that the summer temperatures might cause them to blow up.

Maputo City Council has promised to make coffins available for the funerals. But so far nobody has broached the question of compensation: who will pay for rebuilding the houses that have been destroyed ?

Residents of the outer suburbs remain understandably nervous. When smoke was seen rising from the area of the arsenal on Friday morning, it sparked off further panic, with people running from the area, in the belief that the explosions were about to start again. In fact, this seems to have been a simple bush fire, and no further damage was done.

The question now being insistently asked is: who was responsible for this tragedy ? "Noticias", usually regarded as a pro-government paper, does not normally carry editorials on its front page - but on Saturday it broke this tradition in an editorial that declared "Now, rather than seeking the causes of the event, it is important to know why, after the strong warning given in January, when explosions occurred in the same arsenal, sufficient measures were not taken to avoid new panic and tragedy in the capital".

The paper calls for the arsenal to be moved out of the city "with maximum urgency" - and the same goes for arsenals in Beira and other inhabited areas.

Such a transfer could not be undertaken from one day to the next, but it should be regarded as a matter "of absolute priority".

The South African government has expressed its solidarity with Mozambique, and has promised to send a team to Maputo to assess any needs for assistance.

But one South African institution showed no solidarity at all. This was South African Airways, which spread the deliberate disinformation that it had cancelled a flight to Maputo because of "the political situation" in Mozambique.

In fact the flight was cancelled because, on Thursday night, the Mozambican authorities took the precaution of closing Maputo airport to traffic. It was reopened on Friday morning, when there was no longer any danger of projectiles landing on the runway.

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