March 11, 2012 / 3:49 PM / 8 years ago

Tears, smell of death at Congo mass funeral

BRAZZAVILLE (Reuters) - Families cried and held handkerchiefs over their faces to fight the smell of death as Congo Republic held a mass funeral for more than a hundred victims from last week’s explosions at a weapons depot in the centre of the capital Brazzaville.

Damaged vehicles line a street after a series of explosions destroyed homes and buildings in the Mpila neighbourhood of Congo Republic's capital Brazzaville March 5, 2012. REUTERS/Jonny Hogg

Nine trailer trucks filled with 145 identical wooden coffins arrived at a public convention center where thousands of men and women, including President Denis Sassou Nguesso and his wife, sat under tents and listened to a gospel choir.

“I lost my wife, who was struck by shrapnel while she was praying in church,” said Jean Emmanuel Tsankou Damangui, 54, sitting on a plastic chair and wearing a dark suit. “She has left me alone with five children.”

People laid wreaths of flowers near the coffins and the Archbishop of Brazzaville Monsignor Anatole Milandou urged those at the funeral not to give in to despair, “but to show hope, love and solidarity.”

The national anthem was played by Congo’s military band during the funeral services. The coffins were later transported to a cemetery less than 1 kilometer away and buried.

Some 223 people were killed last Sunday when an electrical fire at a munitions depot in the centre of Brazzaville triggered huge explosions that collapsed nearby buildings and blew out windows more than 5 kilometers (miles) away.

The incident triggered widespread public criticism of Congo’s government for allowing the munitions depot - a leftover from a civil war - to remain near residential areas.

It was the most lethal of a string of accidental explosions at munitions dumps on the continent, following two blasts in Tanzania’s commercial capital Dar es Salaam in 2011 and 2009 that together killed around 50. Another one in Maputo in Mozambique in 2007 killed 70 people.

Only 159 of the bodies from the Congo blasts have been identified, the funeral’s head of ceremonies Médard Milandou said, among them the 145 being buried. The other 14 identified bodies will be buried later, he said.

Roughly 2,300 people were also injured in the March 4 blasts and 14,000 were rendered homeless, officials have said.

Writing by Richard Valdmanis; Editing by Karolina Tagaris

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