26 March 2007

Mozambique: Government Negligence Blamed for Deadly Blast

Maputo — In the face of mounting accusations that government negligence was the primary cause for the munitions depot explosions in the Malhazine neighbourhood of Mozambique's capital, Maputo, which killed over 100 people late last week, President Armando Guebuza has announced that the aging facility will be decommissioned.

On Friday, the day after the depot exploded, Guebuza said the munitions would be removed and stored at a new facility in a remote area. He did not provide a time line for the removal of the munitions, or give the new location of the weaponry.

"As for the future of this depot, we're going to get it out of here, and that's all I can say at this moment," Guebuza said. He also declared a three-day period of national mourning for those who had lost their lives.

The government has launched an inquiry into the cause of the disaster and the results are expected to be made known in about two weeks.

Some government officials initially blamed a heat wave in Maputo for causing hundreds of tonnes of weaponry to explode, but Chris McIvor, country director of Save the Children UK, told IRIN: "It's clear to everybody that this is an avoidable disaster."

Officials began surveying the damage on Saturday, noting houses damaged or destroyed by the blasts and the locations of unexploded weapons, which were dispersed over a wide area by successive explosions. According to a Save the Children press statement, damage occurred in a 10km radius and affected 14 neighbourhoods, where about 300,000 people reside.

The explosions, which began late on Thursday afternoon, created widespread panic and more than 100 children have been reported missing, McIvor said. He anticipated it would take about a week to reunite all the children with their families.

About 1,400 pieces of unexploded ordnance have been recovered so far, and will be transported to an isolated location and destroyed in a controlled demolition; other ordinance, deemed too dangerous to move, is to be destroyed where it fell, a military official told IRIN.

The army also named the UK-based nongovernmental organisation that disposes of the debris of war, the HALO Trust, as its main technical partner in the neighbourhood cleanup. HALO has been involved in similar types of operations from Angola to Afghanistan and follows strict protocols to ensure total clearance.

"There are still fused items of ammunition littering the surrounding area, which could be dangerous if handled," said Dan Bridges, HALO's Mozambique country director. "It is essential that only trained personnel oversee the operations."

Government officials and the humanitarian community have recognised the country's 17 national ammunition dumps as threats to safety, as the facilities have a reputation of being poorly maintained and inadequately secured. In 2003, explosions at the Beira weapons depot killed five people, and an incomplete cleanup after the blasts killed five more people reportedly scavenging the site for scrap metals in December 2006.

Military officials have remained tight lipped about what materials were stored at the Malhazine depot but, according to initial reports, most of the recovered munitions were Soviet-made BM-24 rockets, about one metre in length and weighing 112kg. Although there were no reports of rockets or other ordinance exploding on impact, the burning depot launched debris that destroyed at least 58 homes and damaged perhaps hundreds more.

Other weaponry recovered so far has included unexploded mortar and cannon shells.

There were calls in the national assembly for the minister of defence, Tobias Dai, brother-in-law of President Guebuza, to be sacked. After a smaller explosion at the Malhazine ammunition dump in January 2007, which seriously injured three people, Dai blamed the residents for their injuries, saying they had built their makeshift houses too close to the military base.

The first of the funerals for those killed in Thursday's explosion were held on Sunday.

[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations ]

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