A fuel tanker flipped over and exploded into flames in eastern Congo overnight, killing at least 220 villagers and wounding more than 100 - many of whom had rushed to siphon leaking liquid from the vehicle illegally, the U.N. and local officials said Saturday.
The truck was transporting fuel when it overturned at high speed late Friday near the village of Sange, around 20 miles north of the town of Uvira near the Burundi border. Sange is located between Uvira and the Congolese provincial capital, Bukavu, further to the north.
After the accident, "people came out and tried to siphon the contents of the tanker," said Madnodje Mounoubai, a spokesman for the U.N. peacekeeping mission, which has rushed troops to help evacuate survivors.
"A fire started, and the people trying to siphon the fuel were killed or injured," Mounoubai told The Associated Press. "Right now, we are talking about 220 dead and 111 wounded, but this is not the final toll. This is a very fluid situation."
Mounoubai said a dozen homes in the vicinity had also been destroyed in the blaze. Most people in the area live in thatched huts made of dried leaves and hardened mud.
A U.N. helicopter has so far evacuated 35 wounded to Bukavu, Mounoubai said. Other peacekeepers were taking more wounded to nearby hospitals by ambulance.
Desire Yuma, a local Red Cross official in Bukavu, said Red Cross workers were still collecting charred bodies from the scene. The Red Cross put the toll slightly higher, at 221 dead and 214 injured, and said it was likely to rise.
It was not immediately clear what caused the explosion.
Mounoubai said the truck overturned around dusk and was carrying fuel from Bukavu to Uvira. Other officials and U.N.-backed Radio Okapi reported the truck had begun its journey in Tanzania.
The U.N.'s acting special representative to Congo, Leila Zerrougui, expressed condolences for the tragedy and said the U.N. "will do everything possible to help authorities and assist victims."
Desperately poor people across Africa often descend quickly around damaged or disabled oil trucks leaking fuel on roads and highways, carting it away with plastic jugs, unaware of the danger of doing so.
The worst tragedies have occurred in the West African nation of Nigeria, where thousands have died as crowds siphoned fuel illegally from ruptured or pierced oil pipelines that subsequently exploded.