By CHINEDU ASADU, Associated Press
ABUJA, Nigeria (AP) — At least 100 people may have died in an explosion at an illegal oil refinery in southeastern Nigeria, a local oil official said on Sunday as the search for bodies at the site intensified. and two people suspected of being involved in the explosion.
Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari, in a statement, called the blast a “catastrophe and a national catastrophe”.
Friday night’s blast at facilities in Ohaji-Egbema local government area in Imo state was triggered by a fire at two fuel storage areas where more than 100 people were working, officials said. state officials to the Associated Press.
Dozens of workers were caught in the blast while many others tried to escape the blaze by running through wooded areas.
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Those who died in the disaster are estimated to be in the “range of 100”, said Goodluck Opiah, Imo’s commissioner for petroleum resources. “A lot of them ran into the bush with the burns and they died there.”
Buhari ordered the country’s security forces “to intensify the crackdown” against such illegally operated facilities in many parts of southern Nigeria, a spokesman said in a statement.
Although Nigeria is Africa’s largest crude oil producer, its oil production capacity has been constrained for many years by a chronic oil storage problem and the operation of illegal refineries.
Nigeria lost at least $3 billion in crude oil to theft between January 2021 and February 2022, with shady commercial operators often evading regulators by locating refineries in remote areas like the one that blew up in Imo, the Nigerian Upstream Petroleum Regulatory Commission (NUPRC) said in March.
“There are no arrests yet but the two culprits are on the run and the police are now looking for them,” said Declan Emelumba, Imo’s state information commissioner. Authorities have not released the identities of the suspects.
A mass burial is planned for those killed in the blast, many of whom “have been burned beyond recognition”, Emelumba said. Environmental officials began fumigating the area.
Such disasters occur regularly in Africa’s most populous country, where poverty and unemployment – at 33% according to the latest government estimates – have forced millions of young people into criminal activity.
Operating illegal refineries isn’t as popular in Imo state as it is in the oil-rich Niger Delta region, where militants have become notorious for blowing up pipelines and kidnapping oil company workers .
As many as 30 illegal oil refineries have been dismantled in the Niger Delta region in just two weeks, the Nigerian Ministry of Defense said earlier this month when it announced the establishment of a task force to combat crude oil theft.
In the aftermath of the explosion in Imo State, Nigeria’s Petroleum Ministry told the AP there was “renewed action” to tackle illegal activities in the petroleum sector.
The government and military are stepping up action “to minimize crime along oil production lines”, said Horatius Egua, a senior oil ministry official.
But many culprits are undeterred, including in Imo State, one of the few oil-producing places in southeastern Nigeria. The problem of illegal refineries “has never been so serious” and remains “difficult to solve”, said Opiah, Imo’s oil commissioner.
“It’s like asking why the kidnappings or armed robberies haven’t stopped,” he said. “Even with this incident, few people will be deterred. I’m sure other illegal refineries will appear elsewhere. »
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