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At least 45 people, including 12 children, died in an overnight bus accident on a highway in western Bulgaria, according to local officials.
The cause of Tuesday’s accident was yet to be determined. The bus was registered in North Macedonia and all the victims are feared to be North Macedonian tourists.
The vehicle crashed in flames at about 2am local time while travelling along a highway 45km (26 miles) from the capital, Sofia.
Bulgaria’s interior ministry put the death toll at 45 people, making it the most deadly accident of its kind on record in the Balkan country.
The bus, which was heading from Turkey to North Macedonia, appeared to have hit a highway barrier either before or after it caught fire, according to officials.
Seven people who leaped from the burning vehicle were rushed to hospital in Sofia and were in a stable condition, hospital staff said.
Interior Minister Boyko Rashkov, who visited the crash site, said the bodies of those who died in the incident were “clustered inside [the bus] and are burned to ash”.
“The picture is terrifying, terrifying. I have never seen anything like that before,” he told reporters.
‘An enormous tragedy’
Bulgarian investigative service chief Borislav Sarafov said four buses from a North Macedonian travel agency had entered Bulgaria late on Monday from Turkey. The vehicles were travelling together.
“Human mistake by the driver or a technical malfunction are the two initial versions for the accident,” he said.
Television footage showed the bus, charred and gutted by fire, in the middle of the highway, which was wet from the rain.
“We have an enormous tragedy here,” Bulgarian interim Prime Minister Stefan Yanev told reporters.
North Macedonia’s chief prosecutor, Lubomir Jovevski, who visited the site of the accident near the village of Bosnek, said that 12 children were among the dead.
North Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev said he had spoken to one of the survivors who told him the passengers were sleeping when they were woken by the sound of an explosion.
“I am terrified. This is such a huge tragedy,” he told private television channel BTV.
Zaev said he feared all the victims may be from North Macedonia, given the bus was registered in the country.
The coach party was returning to Skopje from a weekend holiday trip to Istanbul, a trip of about 800km (500 miles).