Confusion reigns after Nigerian blasts as search and relief efforts continue


Thursday, January 31st 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6


LAGOS, Nigeria (AP)_ Four days after explosions at a munitions depot left 600 dead, confusion surrounded the whereabouts Thursday of some 1,000 people who Nigerian Red Cross officials said may _ or may not _ be missing.

Nigerian Red Cross spokesman Patrick Bawa said the organization could not account for up to 1,150 people, including many children who had been reported missing since the blasts rocked the northern part of the country's largest city late Sunday.

But he said it was too early to say whether the death toll would rise _ and rejected local and foreign media reports speculating some people may have been detained or abducted by security forces in a country where child trafficking occurs.

Moses Taiwo, another Red Cross official, said some of those reported missing in the immediate aftermath had likely already been reunited with their families without the knowledge of authorities.

He said police and military officials were ``cooperating fully'' with Red Cross teams seeking to reunite families and determine an accurate count of the missing. There was ``no evidence of abductions or detentions,'' he added.

Police spokesman Femi Oyeleye also rejected the allegations of abductions, saying a number of unaccompanied children had been taken to the Nigerian Police College in hopes of reuniting them with their families.

Residents of this West African metropolis spent another day burying their dead Thursday, as others trekked to hospitals, police stations and morgues in search of missing loved ones.

The explosions, which began Sunday night and continued into the early hours of the morning Monday, propelled shells and flaming debris for miles around.

Days later, the full scope of the tragedy remained unclear.

President Olusegun Obasanjo said Tuesday more than 600 bodies had been recovered _ many of them women and children who accidentally ran into a canal and drowned while fleeing in the darkness. But some local media estimated between 700 and 2,000 were killed.

Dozens of bodies continued to arrived at city morgues after Obasanjo's announcement, but officials did not have an updated death toll.

Tragedy is nothing new in this pollution-choked city of 12 million, where most people live in crowded neighborhoods of tin shacks plagued by violent crime, disease and poverty _ despite the country's oil wealth.

But Nigeria's newspapers and radio stations were calling Sunday's explosions one of the city's worst-ever tragedies.

Obasanjo canceled a planned visit Wednesday to the World Economic Forum in New York because of the disaster.

He said the government was setting up a relief fund for victims worth $2.5 million and appealed to the international community to give further assistance.

Many families blame the military for storing weapons, including rockets and heavy artillery shells, at a base surrounded by crowded slums and working-class neighborhoods.

Others say lives could have been saved if authorities had built more bridges over a five-mile section of the canal that has only one crossing.

The Defense Ministry has promised to move the depot from the crowded northern Ikeja neighborhood to avoid another tragedy, but an army spokesman said Wednesday he was not aware of the plan.

The army has promised an internal investigation. But Lagos state Governor Bola Ahmed Tinubu and other politicians have accused the military of negligence and called for a public inquiry.