DAKAR – Equatorial Guinea’s government has declared the coastal city of Bata an “area of catastrophe” saying it has activated urgent measures to help those affected by blasts Sunday that killed at least 105 people and injured 615 others.
The government declared three days of mourning beginning Wednesday. Investigations into the cause of the blasts have begun.
President Teodoro Obiang Nguema, his wife and son, who is the country's vice president, visited the damaged military barracks Tuesday. Obiang said the explosions in Bata's Mondong Nkuantoma neighborhood were caused by the “negligent handling of dynamite” and the stocking of such ammunition so close to residential areas.
The defense ministry said Sunday that a fire at a weapons depot in the barracks caused the explosion of high-caliber ammunition. The impact of the blast damaged almost all of the homes and buildings in Bata.
More than 60 people were rescued from under the rubble by the civil protection corps and fire service, the government said.
The government held an emergency meeting to see how victims can quickly get aid from Equatorial Guinea before international assistance arrives.
Equatorial Guinea, an oil-rich Spanish-speaking West African country of 1.3 million people located south of Cameroon, was a colony of Spain until it gained its independence in 1968. Bata has roughly 175,000 inhabitants.
Obiang has ruled the country for more than 40 years and kept it largely inaccessible.
The vice president, who is also charged with defense and security, Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue, said Tuesday that investigations so far showed the fire may have begun when a farmer set fire to his plot to prepare it for food production and a breeze spread the flames to the nearby barracks where the high-caliber ammunition was stored.
However, satellite images from Planet Labs Inc. analyzed by The Associated Press show only charred signs of fire at the site that remained centered on three rectangular buildings. There was no sign of farming around the base and the only land-clearing work seen came from a construction project near those buildings, according to the satellite images.
The images show the military base at Bata had been undergoing construction at its southeast corner prior to the explosion. Old, earth-covered munitions storage facilities appear to have been removed and replaced by new structures.
A Nov. 16 photo of the base shows three rectangular buildings sitting close by each other. A satellite image of the site on Tuesday shows that those structures have disappeared, with only charred debris left scattered around them. That suggests a fire occurred at the site, possibly before the blast. A raging fire will ignite explosives if not contained.
The force of the explosions demolished buildings just to the north. The explosions reduced some 40 barracks-style buildings to rubble. The blasts shredded trees and foliage on the base, leaving behind what appeared to be only dirt.
Across the streets hemming in the base, the roofs of buildings appeared blown off by the blast as well. It appeared at least 1 square kilometer (0.38 square mile) had been devastated by the blast, with damage extending out into this city of 175,000 people.
International Monetary Fund Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva offered condolences on behalf of the organization.
“I am very saddened by the humanitarian tragedy unfolding in Equatorial Guinea following the massive explosion at a military compound,” she said. “The IMF is exploring all possible ways to support the people of Equatorial Guinea at this difficult time, building on the ongoing policy dialogue and working with the international community, and to help the country move toward more sustainable and inclusive growth.”
AP writer Jon Gambrell in Dubai contributed.