Manhunt on for suspects as 100 die in Nigeria refinery blast
Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari, in a statement, called the explosion a “catastrophe and a national disaster.”
The explosion Friday night at the facility in Ohaji-Egbema local government area in Imo state was triggered by a fire at two fuel storage areas where more than 100 people worked, state officials told The Associated Press. Dozens of workers were killed in the explosion, while others fled into the woods to escape the flames.
Those who died in the disaster are estimated to be within “the range of 100,” said Goodluck Opiah, the Imo commissioner for petroleum resources. “A lot of them ran into the bush with the burns and they died there.”
Buhari has directed the nation’s security forces “to intensify the clampdown” on such facilities being operated illegally in many parts of southern Nigeria, a spokesperson said in a statement.
Although Nigeria is Africa’s largest producer of crude oil, for many years its oil production capacity has been limited by a chronic challenge of oil storage and the operation of illegal refineries.
Nigeria lost at least $3 billion worth of crude oil to theft between January 2021 and February 2022, with shady business operators often avoiding regulators by setting up refineries in remote areas such as the one that exploded in Imo, the Nigerian Upstream Petroleum Regulatory Commission (NUPRC) said in March.
” There are no arrests yet, but the two suspects are on the loose with the police now searching for them,” declared Declan Emelumba the Imo State commissioner of information. Officials have not revealed the identities of the suspects.
A mass burial is being planned to honor the victims of the explosion, many who were “burnt beyond recognition,” according to Emelumba. The area has been fumigated by environmental officials.
Such disasters are a regular occurrence 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 activities.
Operating illegal refineries is not as popular in Imo state as it is in the oil-rich Niger Delta region, where militants have gained notoriety for blowing up oil pipelines and kidnapping workers from petroleum companies.
As many as 30 illegal oil refineries were busted in the Niger Delta region in just two weeks, Nigeria’s Defense Department said earlier this month when it announced a task force to curb crude oil theft. The Nigerian ministry for petroleum stated to The Associated Press that there was “a renewed effort” to combat illegal activities in the oil industry after the Imo explosion.
The government and military are intensifying their efforts to “minimize the criminalities along oil production lines,” Horatius Egua, a senior official in the petroleum ministry.
However, many of the criminals remain unaffected, including in Imo state which is one of the few places in Nigeria producing oil in the southeast. Opiah, Imo’s petroleum commissioner, stated that the problem of illegal refineries has “never been this serious” and is still “difficult for anyone to solve.”
“It’s like asking why kidnapping and armed robbery have not stopped,” he stated. “Even with this incident it is unlikely that many people will be deterred. I am sure more illegal refineries will be cropping up in other places.”
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