An explosion at an illegal oil refinery in southern Nigeria has killed at least 80 people, the emergency services said Sunday.
The blast occurred late Friday at the illegal site between the southern oil states of Rivers and Imo, police said.
“We recovered at least 80 badly burnt bodies at the scene,” Ifeanyi Nnaji of the National Emergency Management Agency in the area, told AFP, adding that the toll could rise.
“We learnt many bodies are in nearby bushes and forests as some illegal operators and their patrons scampered to safety.”
Many people had “severe burns”, he said, adding some later died in hospital.
Nnaji said several burnt vehicles and jerry-cans used in scooping stolen crude and petroleum products littered the scene of the carnage.
Local media said more than 100 people, mostly youths, were burnt to death.
Police confirmed the explosion happened late Friday at the site of an illegal refinery where operators and their patrons had gathered for business but did not provide figures on how many died.
Idris Musa, head of the of state-run National Oil Spills Detection and Response Agency told AFP an investigation was under way.
He said the explosion “claimed several lives, especially those engaged in illegal oil refining and bunkering”.
An NGO in the oil-producing Niger delta said corpses of the victims littered the area, but could not immediately say how many were killed.
“Several bodies burnt beyond recognition lay on the ground while others who may have attempted to run for safety are seen hanging on some tree branches,” said Fyneface Dumnamene, executive director of Youths and Environmental Advocacy Centre.
– Hundreds of illegal refineries –
The incident is the latest to hit oil-rich Nigeria in recent years.
Pipeline fires are commonplace in Nigeria, in part because of poor maintenance but also because of thieves who vandalise pipelines to siphon off petrol and sell it on the black market.
Crude oil is tapped from a web of pipelines owned by major oil companies and refined into products in makeshift tanks.
According to industry sources, Nigeria loses around 200,000 barrels of crude to oil thieves, vandals and illegal refining operators daily.
Most people in the Niger delta live in poverty even though the country is the biggest oil producer on the continent, with output of around two million barrels per day.
Hundreds have been killed in the past due to stealing and illegal refining known locally as bunkering.
The worst pipeline blast in Nigeria happened in southern town of Jesse in October 1998, leaving over 1,000 villagers dead.
The government has deployed the military to raid and destroy illegal refineries in the Niger delta as part of measures to stop stealing.
But the government’s clampdown has not yielded results as hundreds of illegal refineries still litter the swamps, creeks and waters of the impoverished Niger delta, causing spills and pollution of the environment.