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Nigeria depot blasts blamed in 500 deaths

Scores of bodies pulled from canal; homes, firms leveled

SHARE Nigeria depot blasts blamed in 500 deaths

LAGOS, Nigeria — More than 500 bodies were retrieved from a canal in Lagos Monday after explosions from a burning military arms depot triggered panic in Nigeria's biggest city.

The explosions at a munitions depot destroyed homes and businesses in the commercial capital.

Panicked residents ran and drove into the Oke Afa canal as they fled the blasts Sunday evening at the nearby Ikeja military base. They apparently didn't realize how deep the water was and drowned, witnesses said. Parts of the canal were covered with water hyacinths.

An army spokesman said the explosions were apparently set off by a fire that spread to the depot.

Rescuer workers and volunteers in small fishing boats used long poles Monday to search the canal for more bodies in Lagos' northern Isolo neighborhood.

Thousands of people gathered on the water's edge, crying and wailing each time rescuers located a body.

"The people who fell in here are strangers to the area," said Ben Nwachukwu, a businessman who was helping search for victims. "They didn't know there was water until they were drowning."

Dozens of explosions, which began shortly before 6 p.m. Sunday, sent a fireworks display of artillery ammunition hundreds of yards into the sky.

The blasts, which shook the city's northern neighborhoods and shattered windows at the international airport six miles away, continued into the early morning hours.

Strewn among the water hyacinths were a woman's pink shoe, a baby's slipper and a peace of bright orange and red cloth.

It was not immediately clear how many people died in the blasts themselves.

Army Brig. Gen. George Emdin said there was "absolutely no one killed." But Mustafa Igama, a soldier at the base, described seeing "so many dead bodies" as he fled the scene.

President Olusegun Obasanjo toured the base Monday morning, addressing hundreds of soldiers and their families who had fled the barracks. He promised the military would investigate the cause of the accident.

A small blast interrupted Obasanjo's speech, jolting jittery crowd members, although the president stood firm.

Olusegun Ajayi, an officer at the military base, said his home was destroyed and his three small children were missing.

"My wife and I don't know where they are," he said in tears.

As he spoke, flames were still licking the walls of a school inside the base.

Burning shrapnel from the blasts also lit fires that caved in the roof of the Divine Power Outreach Ministries Church on the top floor of a four-story building in the nearby working-class neighborhood of Oshodi.

A radio and television repair shop there was destroyed by a shell, which left jagged fragments jutting from the ground nearby.

"I was so afraid, I ran away without being able to save even a pocket radio," said Sani Mohammed, the shop's owner.

Next door, the windows and ceiling tiles of the Mandela hospital were destroyed, though all patients were safely evacuated, hospital staff said.

State and military officials went on national television Sunday night to appeal for calm. They said the explosions were an accident at an old facility and assured the population they were not an indication of military unrest.

A police officer, who gave his name as A.E. Odikaesieme, said the blasts had apparently been touched off by an explosion at a nearby gas station. This could not be independently confirmed.

Army spokesman Col. Felix Chukwumah said a fire spread to the munitions depot, but had no details on where the fire started.

The oil-rich nation of Nigeria is Africa's most populous country, and Lagos — with more than 12 million residents — is its largest city.

The election of Obasanjo in 1999 ended 15 years of brutal military rule. But the country continues to suffer widespread poverty and dangerous ethnic and religious divides that regularly flare into violence.