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Congo Rail Disaster Toll Reaches 76

June 23, 2010

Railway staff in Congo are searching for more bodies two days after a train accident killed at least 76 people.

Amid the stench of rotting bodies and of fish that was being transported on the train that derailed on Monday evening, about 100 railway employees cleared the way for a crane to lift eight overturned carriages, an AFP reporter said.

Witnesses said the crowded train flew off the tracks after hurtling into a bend at full speed near Yanga, about 60 kilometres east of the southern coastal city of Pointe-Noire.

Congolese President Denis Sassou Nguesso travelled to Pointe-Noire on Wednesday to meet some of those affected by the disaster as a crisis unit raised the death toll to 76, with up to 700 people reported injured.

'This morning, the new toll is 76 dead. The bodies are all at the morgue in Pointe-Noire,' a unit official said.

The government on Tuesday issued a provisional toll of 48 dead, with a final tally only possible after all the carriages have been cleared, and announced three days of national mourning starting on Friday.

Residents of Yanga, a village of 200-300 people, were among the first to reach the disaster and told of a terrible scene.

'First we heard what we thought was a big explosion,' said Fabrice Malonga, 36. 'I saw bodies: children, older people. The carriages were full.'

'We took the wounded (injured) to the road to wait for help,' he said.

'The evening of the accident, most of the young people of the village had blood on their clothes because they helped the wounded,' said villager Dalet Ngoma, 28.

Some of the wounded left Point-Noire hospitals on Wednesday but about 160 people remained, the area's public relations director, Simon Edika, told AFP.

Nguesso had travelled to the city to 'see the situation for himself and to share the pain of the affected families,' the presidential media office told AFP.

The number of injured has been put at between 400 and 700, according to different figures issued by the authorities, the crisis cell and hospitals.

The government has cited excess speed on the colonial- era track as the probable cause of the accident.

Joseph Sauveur El Bez, director general of the Chemin de fer Congo-ocean (CFCO) railway company that runs the train, put the crash down to driver error.

But he acknowledged that the high death toll was 'because the train was overloaded. There were too many passengers.'

'The train was fine. The track was in good condition,' he told AFP.

Opposition activists demanded an inquiry and accused the government of neglecting the country's infrastructure.

The 510-kilometre CFCO line is the main link between the capital Brazzaville and Pointe Noire on the Atlantic.

Mainly following the Congo River, it was constructed between 1921 and 1934 during French colonial rule and thousands of Africans are said to have died building it.

In September 1991 a collision on the same line left 100 dead and 300 injured in the country's worst ever rail disaster.

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