At least 85 people were killed in South Sudan after a broken down fuel truck exploded as a crowd gathered around it to siphon petroleum from its tank, officials said Thursday.
The explosion occurred on Wednesday in the town of Maridi, in the state of Western Equatoria, after the fuel truck veered off the road, said presidential spokesman Ateny Wek Ateny. Citing local authorities, he said the tanker was "full of petrol" that started to leak and residents were siphoning off fuel when someone lit a cigarette, sparking the blast.
Officials gave varying estimates of the death toll. According to Atney, at least 85 people were killed in the explosion. However, Gov. Patrick Raphael Zamoi said the figure was closer to 176.
"People are still dying; they have not assessed the exact number in the hospital," Zamoi said.
Charles Kisagna, minister of information for the state, said about 50 others were also seriously injured in the blast.
Ateny said the injured were taken to local hospitals, which were overwhelmed. Some victims were burned beyond recognition, he said.
Layal Horanieh, spokeswoman for the International Committee of the Red Cross in nearby Juba, said the aid group sent two burn kits to Maridi, each with enough equipment to treat at least 50 patients.
Deadly fuel tank explosions are common in East Africa, where poor residents living near highways often converge around vehicles involved in accidents to steal gas and then sell it. In June 2013, 29 people were killed and scores injured in an explosion after a collision between a fuel truck and a passenger van in the Ugandan capital of Kampala.
South Sudan is in the grip of a dire economic crisis sparked by nearly two years of civil war, which has caused rampant inflation and soaring prices of basic goods, including fuel. The violence has left tens of thousands of people dead and the impoverished country split along ethnic lines.