Congo risks more killer fuel accident: expert

KINSHASA Tue Jul 6, 2010 1:58am EDT

The charred remains of corpses lie under blankets near rescue workers in Sange, eastern Congo after an oil tanker crashed and exploded, killing hundreds in a fireball, July 3, 2010. REUTERS/Fiston Ngoma/United Nations/Handout

The charred remains of corpses lie under blankets near rescue workers in Sange, eastern Congo after an oil tanker crashed and exploded, killing hundreds in a fireball, July 3, 2010.

Credit: Reuters/Fiston Ngoma/United Nations/Handout

KINSHASA (Reuters) - The Democratic Republic of Congo risks another fuel explosion like that which killed some 230 people at the weekend unless it boosts safety in the chaotic east and south of the country, a sector expert said on Monday.

More than 60 children, many of them watching football in makeshift cinema halls, were among those killed in the blast after an oil tanker toppled, and leaking petrol later ignited with the force equivalent to 343 kg (756 lb) of dynamite.

"It can easily happen again unless the government tightens safety measures," Alain Ilunga, deputy CEO of Congo's fuel distribution company SEP Congo, a joint venture with Total, told Reuters on Monday.

SEP distributes 95 percent of fuel in the west of the country, imported by a mix of traders including Swiss-based companies Glencore and Trafigura, which together accounted for 54 percent of stock in the first half of the year in the west.

Since the 1998-2003 war that drew in six neighbours and killed more than five million people, the state's share of fuel distribution in the east has dwindled to 25 percent from 80 percent of the market as private transporters have stepped in.

"We have lost the market in the east to independents since the war but most of them do not play by the rules or measure up to international safety standards," said Ilunga.

He said poorly maintained vehicles, untrained drivers, poor quality fuel, driving at night outside cities and a lack of insurance and other documentation were among the pitfalls.

Buhendwa Mayele, head of accounts at GINKI, the local private Congolese company whose hired tanker exploded, blamed the road for the accident and told Reuters there had been no problems with the truck or driver.

Ilunga also said Congolese in need of fuel had no idea how dangerous petrol was. Local sources said U.N. peacekeepers failed in their efforts to keep residents away from the tanker as they were intent on collecting spilt petrol.

"No one would approach a terrorist who opened his jacket to reveal 7 kg of dynamite, but when the equivalent of 343 kg of dynamite spread over the ground, locals were there trying to scoop it up," said Ilunga, in reference to the frenzy for fuel.

"TWO DAYS OF MOURNING"

President Joseph Kabila flew to the east on Monday to visit the wounded and volunteers in Sange and nearby Uvira, after declaring two days of national mourning late on Sunday.

"I have instructed the government to speedily illuminate the circumstances of this tragedy and take all measures to make sure this does not happen again in future," he said in a televised national address on Sunday.

Ilunga said Congo also faces a storage crisis, requiring $217 million of investment, that threatens to undermine safety.

The country can store one million cubic metres of fuel but consumption is set to surpass storage capacity this year, from 999,000 cubic metres in 2009 to 1.11 million cubic metres by the end of 2010 and to reach two million cubic metres by 2020.

Five of SEP's 38 depots in remote regions of Congo are in disrepair and need rehabilitating.

"The demand for fuel is still rising but soon we will not be able to meet it and this will have a negative impact on economic activities that rely on fuel, and thus growth", said Ilunga.

"It could also increase smuggling and lead to greater safety hazards in future," he added.

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