A series of explosions at a military weapons depot in the Mozambican capital, Maputo, late on Thursday afternoon showered rockets and other ballistic debris into densely populated poor neighbourhoods, killing at least 76 people, wounding hundreds more, and sending thousands of residents fleeing from their homes.
The blasts began at about 4 p.m. and grew in intensity for six hours, sending concussive gusts, which were felt 10km away in downtown Maputo, and shockwaves that shattered windows in buildings as far as 25km away. It is believed that hundreds of tonnes of decaying munitions went up in flames, sending columns of fire hundreds of feet into the air.
The total amount of weaponry and explosives stored in the country's largest depot is not known, but it is estimated to contain thousands of tonnes of weaponry and explosives.
So far 76 people have been confirmed dead, according to fatalities registered at the Central Hospital. Antonio Assis, the hospital's emergency room director, told IRIN early on Friday morning that several dozen more victims were in critical condition. "The great majority of these needed amputations," he said. It was unclear how many dead were registered at other hospitals and health posts, or how many people were still unaccounted for.
About a kilometre from the munitions dump, in the poor neighbourhood of Malhazine, children and their parents had huddled against a graveyard wall for protection as rockets spun overhead and tracer bullets streaked through billowing black smoke. On Friday, IRIN visited Magoanine, about one kilometre from the weapons dump, and saw unexploded rockets, each nearly a meter in length, littering the neighbourhood.
In one Magoanine street of only 62 houses, unexploded rockets had crashed through the walls or come to rest in the yards of 10 of them, a local official told IRIN. At least one home had been completely destroyed. No residents in the street were hurt, the official said, but a family of 13 people was killed in a nearby area when an explosion destroyed the home they were sheltering in.
Carlos Bembele rushed to his Magoanine home as soon as he heard the explosions. He was huddling with his family in their yard when a rocket dropped through the kitchen roof. He slept in his house last night, a few meters from the explosive, which was lodged in the floor beside the refrigerator. "I didn't have anywhere else to go," he said.
Photo: David Morton/IRIN
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Officials suspect the hot weather conditions prevailing in the capital were the catalyst for the explosions. The same cause was blamed on a smaller explosion at the munitions depot in January this year, which seriously injured three people.
"Once again, we find ourselves grieving such an occurrence, and we hope to re-establish the peace as soon as possible," President Armando Guebuza said in a televised address last night. He was referring to past explosions at national armouries both here and in Beira over the past twenty years.
In 2003 an electrical storm set off an explosion at the Beira arms depot, killing three people and destroying 130 houses. Five more people were killed at the site in December 2006, when they caused an explosion while scavenging for scrap metal. In 1985 an explosion, again at the Malhazine in Maputo, killed 13 and injured 100.
Dan Bridges, the country director of HALO Trust, a UK-based nongovernmental organisation (NGO) that specialises in removing the debris of war, said even if the scattered rockets and other debris lacked explosive fuses, they could be exploded in other ways. Technical expertise would be needed to clear the unexploded ordnance, some of which would probably have to be destroyed on site. HALO is in talks with the military about providing assistance.
The humanitarian community and the government have long recognised the dangers posed by the 17 national armouries of the armed forces, which are poorly maintained and secured, and where tonnes of un-inventoried munitions are decaying. Mozambican officials have frequently acknowledged to the humanitarian community that they would like to dispose of the unwanted munitions, but the government has yet to develop a plan to deal with the problem.
However, the military has been cautious about allowing officials, other than its own personnel, onto its sites. A senior military official said the fire at the depot was extinguished on Friday morning.
The army has yet to investigate the munitions dispersed into neighbouring communities. There were fifty Mozambican military explosives experts in the army's main Maputo barracks, an official said, but no trucks could be found to transport them to the affected neighbourhoods.