Gasoline pipeline explosion in southern Nigeria kills more than 100 villagers

Jul 12, 2000 02:00 AM

Fire-fighters and stunned villagers searched for more bodies after a gasoline pipeline explosion in southern Nigeria that killed more than 100 villagers who were scavenging for fuel and left 100 others seriously injured.
Isolated fires still burned, two days after the blast near the villages of Adeje and Oviri-Court in southern Nigeria, in the oil-rich Niger Delta. Clouds of black smoke hung over the area, and state petroleum company workers and fire-fighters continued efforts to extinguish the blaze. Charred bodies, many of them children in school uniforms, lay scattered near the site of the explosion. Some corpses were burned beyond recognition, while others still clutched containers used to collect fuel. Villagers were hastily burying bodies in shallow graves. One reporter counted 100 bodies, while others who visited the scene estimated that between 150 and 250 people were killed. The death toll was expected to climb, with 100 villagers seriously wounded and another 100 reported missing, witnesses and state television said.

Officials said the blast occurred after the 12-inch pipeline, which was carrying gasoline from a refinery to northern Nigeria, was punctured and caught fire. The blast destroyed fields and buildings within a one-mile radius. Farmer Dan Akpele said that he heard a loud explosion and saw swarms of people running and screaming. Other witnesses said many people near the scene were unable to outrun the leaping flames. "There was total confusion. We were all shocked and confused," Akpele said. "I just thank God all 13 of my children are safe." Edorah Agbah, a state petroleum company spokesman, blamed the tragedy on villagers who, he said, cut open the pipe. The vandals were part of an organised smuggling network that sells scavenged fuel, Agbah said.
The pipeline had been vandalised seven times since January in exactly the same spot, he said, explaining that many poor villagers in Oviri-Court had large fuel tanks behind their huts to collect the stolen fuel. "The way the smuggling is well organised, you will be shocked," Agbah said. "They actually bring in vehicles to come and load up the (gasoline)." Witnesses also said the pipeline had been punctured by vandals days earlier. Children and adults flocked to the area each day from surrounding villages to gather the gasoline in buckets and sell it along roadsides, the witnesses said.
After the blast, some of the injured were taken to a hospital in Warri. Many others were being treated at home by traditional doctors because they feared arrest. In the past, the government has prosecuted and even threatened to shoot pipeline vandals on sight.

President Olusegun Obasanjo's spokesman, Doyin Okupe, said that greedy business operators were encouraging dangerous pipeline vandalism. "It is driven by poverty and greed," Okupe said. "They know the risks." Hundreds of cases of pipeline sabotage are reported each year in Nigeria. Some are carried out by militant activists trying to force the government and oil companies to give compensation to communities for land use and alleged pollution. In other cases, villagers collect the gushing fuel to make a crude mixture of oil and gasoline for cheap generators and other motors.
The scene resembled a tragedy two years ago in nearby Jesse, where more than 700 people were killed in an explosion. Since then, the government has tried to educate villagers about the danger of "scooping," the illegal practice of scavenging fuel from pipelines. But absolute poverty in the region means many people remain willing to risk death for fuel.
"This really wasn't a surprise. Our people know the danger of scooping for petrol. But they have to survive," said driver Austin Obaseki as he grimly observed the slaughter.

Nigeria is the world's sixth-largest oil exporter, accounting for about one-twelfth of the oil imported by the United States. Disruptions caused by sabotage are especially painful for the country's economy at a time when oil prices have skyrocketed from 1998 lows.

Source: AP
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