At least 50 people were killed and more than 100 were badly burned when a tanker truck in Congo collided with another truck and, as villagers rushed to collect the leaking fuel, burst into flames, witnesses and officials said Saturday.
Faced with one of the country's deadliest traffic accidents, President Joseph Kabila ordered three days of national mourning "in this particularly painful moment for the Congolese people."
The accident occurred overnight in the village of Mbuba, not far from Kisantu city and about 200 kilometers (124 miles) southwest of the capital, Kinshasa. The city is on the main highway between the capital and the country's Matadi seaport.
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The fire quickly spread to nearby homes, Congo's health ministry said in a statement. An investigation was underway into the cause of the accident.
A photo tweeted by the ministry showed the blackened tanker, its front bumper torn aside and its windshield missing.
"The driver of the tanker truck has disappeared while the driver of the tractor-trailer died at the scene," the ministry said. Twenty charred bodies had been recovered, and four other people died after arriving at a hospital.
"The toll continues to evolve," the statement said.
The interim governor of Kongo-Central province, Atu Matubuana, who shared the toll of at least 50 dead, said officials were identifying the bodies in preparation for burial.
Photos posted online by a local journalist showed some of the injured, their skin raw from burns, piled into the back of a pickup truck and squeezed between people on a motorbike as they sought aid.
"See under what conditions they are transported," the activist group LUCHA, which in English is known as Fight for Change, said of the photo in a Twitter post. "You can guess under what conditions they will be 'treated.' Shameful and revolving in the 21st century!"
As the country's health and transport ministers arrived, ambulances and mobile clinics rushed to the scene.
The U.N. peacekeeping mission in Congo said it had offered assistance for the injured, with nine ambulances en route to help with medical evacuations.
Congo's military was sending others, the health ministry said. Already 20 of the injured had been evacuated to the capital, it added.
Deadly traffic accidents are common in Congo, where roads and other infrastructure in the vast country are often poorly maintained.
In 2010, more than 200 people were killed when a tanker truck overturned and burned in South Kivu province at the other end of the country.
Again, many of the victims had been trying to collect the leaking fuel when it caught fire.