Oil truck explosion kills at least 95 in southern Nigeria

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LAGOS, Nigeria -- A truck carrying fuel veered off the road into a ditch, caught fire and exploded in Nigeria's oil-rich delta Thursday, killing at least 95 people who had rushed to the scene to scoop fuel that had spilled, an official said -- a tragic reminder of how little of the country's oil wealth has trickled down to the poor.

At least 50 others were injured in the southern Niger Delta incident, said Rivers State spokeswoman Ibim Semenitari.

Hours after the explosion, some charred corpses were still lying at the site, including bodies the size of children, witnesses said.

"What did these small ones know about coming to scoop fuel?" wondered Alagoa Morris, a coordinator at the advocacy group Oil Watch Nigeria. He said some women wailed at the blast scene, desperately seeking relatives. The location of some bodies suggested that they were trying to flee when fire consumed them, Mr. Morris added.

The fuel truck was trying to avoid a head-on collision with buses when it swerved into the ditch Thursday morning, said Rivers State police spokesman Ben Ugwuegbulam. It then overturned, its fuel spilled, and people immediately swarmed to the scene to collect some.

Yushau Shuaib, spokesman for the West African country's emergency management agency, said 95 were killed in the explosion that ensued. It was not immediately clear what caused the fire, which reduced the truck to ashes.

Despite Nigeria's decades as an oil-producing region, the majority of Niger Delta residents remain desperately poor and mostly without access to proper medical care, education or work. Anger over that circumstance on several occasions has driven young people to attack foreign oil firms based there and steal fuel from pipelines.

The crude flowing from the Niger Delta is the lifeblood of Nigeria's economy. The OPEC member now pumps out about 2.4 million barrels of oil a day, making it Africa's biggest producer. Production dropped drastically during militant attacks that targeted pipelines and kidnapped foreign workers. A 2009 government-sponsored amnesty program saw many fighters lay down their arms, and the violence largely stopped.

The truck accident happened near Okogbe town, about 40 miles from Port Harcourt city, Nigeria's delta oil capital -- a region of swamps, mangroves and creeks that is roughly the size as South Carolina. A pipeline and filling station were near the accident site, but neither was impacted.

President Goodluck Jonathan said in a statement that he was "deeply saddened by the loss of many lives" and "particularly distraught by the fact that, once again, so many Nigerian lives have been lost in an avoidable fuel fire disaster."

A photographer at the scene said the accident occurred on a major East-West expressway that was being expanded. But construction workers hadn't yet reached where the accident occurred, still a single lane that often forces vehicles racing head-on to swerve to avoid each other. Mr. Alagoa said the accident "would not have happened" if the road had two lanes there.

At least two contracts have been signed in the last six years to expand the expressway running through Niger Delta states, according to a government website. But corruption often hinders or slows road and maintenance projects. Accidents are also common on Nigeria's poorly maintained roads. Drivers often travel at high speed and overtake slower vehicles, leading to head-on collisions.

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