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Politics | Society

Govt negligence blamed for Mozambique blast

afrol News / IRIN, 26 March - In the face of mounting accusations that government negligence was the primary cause for the munitions depot explosions in the Malhazine neighbourhood of Mozambique's capital, Maputo, which killed over 100 people late last week, President Armando Guebuza has announced that the aging facility will be decommissioned.

On Friday, the day after the depot exploded, President Guebuza said the munitions would be removed and stored at a new facility in a remote area. He did not provide a time line for the removal of the munitions, or give the new location of the weaponry.

"As for the future of this depot, we are going to get it out of here, and that is all I can say at this moment," President Guebuza said. He also declared a three-day period of national mourning for those who had lost their lives.

The Mozambican government has launched an inquiry into the cause of the disaster and the results are expected to be made known in about two weeks. The move follows heavy criticism from national media and the opposition, blaming government negligence for the blast.

Some government officials initially blamed a heat wave in Maputo for causing hundreds of tonnes of weaponry to explode, but Chris McIvor, country director of Save the Children UK, told the UN media 'IRIN': "It is clear to everybody that this is an avoidable disaster."

Friday's issue of the country's largest circulation weekly newspaper, 'Savana', blamed the military for the disaster. Its front page carried the one word banner headline "Negligence". In an opinion article, Fernando Lima, chairman of the board of Mediacoop, the company that owns 'Savana', called on Defence Minister Tobias Dai to resign.

Mr Lima said it was "ridiculous" to blame the summer heat for the explosions, pointing out that there are specific technical norms dictating how explosives should be stored "regardless of climatic conditions".

Although Tobias Dai is not responsible for the day to day running of the Malhazine arsenal, "its is his men who are directly involved in incidents that have cost human lives, destroyed property, and spread enormous panic throughout Maputo". The Defence Minister is "politically responsible" for the Ministry he heads, said Mr Lima, and the best thing he could now do would be to offer his resignation to President Guebuza.

Following the reports in 'Savana', there were also calls in the national assembly for Defence, Minister Dai to be sacked. Mr Dai is a brother-in-law of President Guebuza.

Officials began surveying the damage on Saturday, noting houses damaged or destroyed by the blasts and the locations of unexploded weapons, which were dispersed over a wide area by successive explosions. According to a Save the Children press statement, damage occurred in a 10 kilometres radius and affected 14 neighbourhoods, where about 300,000 people reside.

The explosions, which began late on Thursday afternoon, created widespread panic and more than 100 children have been reported missing, Mr McIvor said. He anticipated it would take about a week to reunite all the children with their families.

About 1,400 pieces of unexploded ordnance have been recovered so far, and were to be transported to an isolated location and destroyed in a controlled demolition; other ordinance, deemed too dangerous to move, is to be destroyed where it fell, a military official told 'IRIN'.

The army also named the UK-based nongovernmental organisation that disposes of the debris of war, the HALO Trust, as its main technical partner in the neighbourhood cleanup. HALO has been involved in similar types of operations from Angola to Afghanistan.

"There are still fused items of ammunition littering the surrounding area, which could be dangerous if handled," said Dan Bridges, HALO's Mozambique country director. "It is essential that only trained personnel oversee the operations."

Government officials and the humanitarian community have recognised the country's 17 national ammunition dumps as threats to safety, as the facilities have a reputation of being poorly maintained and inadequately secured. In 2003, explosions at the Beira weapons depot killed five people, and an incomplete cleanup after the blasts killed five more people reportedly scavenging the site for scrap metals in December 2006.

Military officials have remained tight lipped about what materials were stored at the Malhazine depot but, according to initial reports, most of the recovered munitions were Soviet-made BM-24 rockets, about one metre in length and weighing 112 kg. Although there were no reports of rockets or other ordinance exploding on impact, the burning depot launched debris that destroyed at least 58 homes and damaged perhaps hundreds more.

Other weaponry recovered so far has included unexploded mortar and cannon shells.

After a smaller explosion at the Malhazine ammunition dump in January 2007, which seriously injured three people, Defence Minister Dai blamed the residents for their injuries, saying they had built their makeshift houses too close to the military base.

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