At least 35 people have been killed in Benin after a fuel depot exploded into flames, sending a black cloud of smoke into the sky, according to officials and witnesses.
The fire broke out on Saturday at a warehouse for smuggled fuel in the town of Seme-Podji near the border with Nigeria, where cars, motorbikes and tricycle taxis came to stock up on fuel, residents said.
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“The fire burned down the store and according to an initial assessment resulted in 35 deaths including one child,” Prosecutor Abdoubaki Adam-Bongle in a statement.
“According to the witnesses interviewed, the fire was probably started during the unloading of bags of gasoline.”
More than a dozen others were seriously injured and are being treated in hospital, he said.
A video of the fire widely circulated on social media, verified by Al Jazeera, shows a tower of black smoke and flames spewing into the air above what appears to be a marketplace as shocked people watch from a safe distance.
🚨[DRAME] Au #Bénin, un incendie s’est déclaré samedi dans un dépôt clandestin d’essence frelatée dans la localité de Sèmè-Kraké. Un premier bilan fait état de 33 morts (calcinés). 💔🇧🇯 pic.twitter.com/kzzL1JhEmM
— LSI AFRICA (@lsiafrica) September 23, 2023
Translation: A fire broke out on Saturday at an illegal fuel depot in Benin’s Seme-Krake. Initial reports indicate at least 33 deaths.
Benin’s Interior Minister Alassane Seidou said the “cause of the fire is smuggled fuel”. He said the blaze left the bodies of the victims “badly charred”.
Fuel smuggling is common along Benin’s border with Nigeria, a major oil producer. Illegal refineries, fuel dumps and pipelines have sprung up in border towns, sometimes causing fires.
“I live not far from the tragedy,” Semevo Nounagnon, a local bike driver, told the AFP news agency.
“I can’t really give you the cause of the fire, but there is a large gasoline warehouse here and cars, tricycles and motorcycles come from morning to evening.”
Others expressed shock at the incident.
“We heard people screaming for help. But the intensity of the flames was too much for people to try to approach,” said Innocent Sidokpohou, a local carpenter.
“I got gas for my motorbike to go do my shopping. I left and barely five metres away I heard an explosion. When I turned around it was all black smoke.”
The justice ministry said it has launched an investigation to determine the cause of the fire.