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Toll tops 600 from Nigeria blasts

Many drowned in canal while trying to flee explosions

SHARE Toll tops 600 from Nigeria blasts

LAGOS, Nigeria — Nigeria's president declared a national disaster on Tuesday after a series of explosions at an army weapons depot in Lagos left at least 600 dead, most of them women and children who drowned in a canal while trying to run away.

In a radio broadcast, President Olusegun Obasanjo said "over 600 bodies had been recovered," including many from the Oke Afa canal in the northern Isolo neighborhood of this city of 12 million. He said the dead were mostly women, young people and children.

"What happened in Lagos was a monumental tragedy," Obasanjo said, calling the deaths a "national disaster."

Lagos Gov. Bola Ahmed Tinubu blamed the deaths on military negligence, radio stations said.

The Vanguard newspaper of Lagos estimated that more than 2,000 people were killed. State television cited unnamed witnesses as saying between 750 and 1,000 bodies had been recovered in various parts of the city. The reports could not be independently confirmed.

Hundreds of bodies were pulled out of the canal in Nigeria's largest city Monday after victims drowned Sunday night while trying to flee the explosions.

"Ikeja mortuary is filled; they have started to use other local government facilities," Tinubu said in a state television broadcast. "It's a disaster. We did not anticipate it would rise to this level."

Pope John Paul II sent a condolence message to Nigerian bishops, assuring his "closeness in prayer" for victims of the tragedy and for the rescue workers.

Army spokesman Col. Felix Chukwumah said the explosions began when a fire spread to the depot, which is surrounded by crowded slums and working-class neighborhoods. The blasts propelled shrapnel and shock waves for miles, shattering windows six miles away at the international airport and sending residents fleeing in panic.

Many victims apparently didn't realize how deep the water was and drowned when they ran and drove vehicles into the Oke Afa drainage canal, witnesses said.

A woman's pink shoe, a baby's slipper and a bright orange and red skirt floated among the plants in the canal.

Rescue volunteer Ben Nwachukwu said more than 200 bodies were pulled from just one part of the canal. Other volunteers said the death toll could be much higher, but getting an accurate count was difficult — in part because volunteer rescue workers were taking bodies to private homes.

An Associated Press reporter saw at least 35 corpses in the water, on the grass and in the backs of trucks being driven away.

It was not clear how many people died in the blasts themselves. Mustafa Igama, a soldier at the base, described seeing "so many dead bodies" as he fled the scene.

State Police Commissioner Mike Okiro told state television Tuesday that some people had been killed and injured while handling unexploded shells and other ammunition propelled by the blasts. In Isolo, some five miles from the weapons dump, an AP reporter saw one boy casually tossing in his hands what looked like a hand grenade.

Many children were separated from their families during Sunday night's panic, said State Police Commissioner Mike Okiro. He said some children were being cared for at police stations until their families could be located.

As the fire spread Sunday, dozens of blasts sent fireballs towering over Nigeria's sprawling commercial capital. The explosions continued into the early morning Monday.

Chukwumah, the army spokesman, said he did not know how the fire started, but a police officer said Sunday it began at a nearby gas station. State and military officials said the fire was accidental and not an indication of military unrest.