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Hundreds Killed Fleeing Explosions in Nigeria; Inquiry to Follow - 2002-01-29

People in Nigeria's main city, Lagos, are expressing anger toward the military following Sunday's explosions at an ammunition depot in the city. The blasts resulted in the deaths of more than 600 people.

Residents are demanding answers as to why the military was storing large amounts of high-power explosives in a facility in the Ikeja district, a densely populated area of the Nigerian commercial capital, Lagos.

Witnesses say the series of explosions started with a small fire at a nearby street market that spread quickly into the munitions depot.

The explosions that followed sent burning shrapnel flying into adjacent homes and businesses. Panicked residents ran for their lives.

People's anger has been fueled by images on television and in newspapers of workers pulling hundreds of bodies from the Oke-Afa canal. The cadavers are those of people, including many children, who plunged into the canal and drowned as they tried to run from the blasts. Witnesses say victims got caught in the crush and were pushed into the canal by those running behind them.

On Monday, President Olusegun Obasanjo toured the disaster area and promised the military would carry out a full inquiry. He said the government would assist the thousands who were left homeless.

In a later address on television and radio, the president acknowledged that at least 600 people perished as a result of the explosions Sunday. He called the incident a national disaster and asked Nigerians to hold a national day of prayer Tuesday. Police have not released the official figure on the number of dead. Nigerian news reports are estimating the death toll is between 600 and 2,000. Authorities in Lagos say that until an official count is released, the higher estimates are what one official referred to as "pure speculation."

Representatives of the Nigerian Red Cross Tuesday said thousands of people remain missing. The agency is working to reunite at least 300 children who lost contact with their parents during the explosions.

Military officials say there had been safety concerns raised earlier about the way the ammunition was being stored at the Ikeja military facility. For now, officials are calling on Nigerians to avoid speculating on who is to blame until the investigation is complete.