Up to 80 dead in Nigeria oil tanker inferno

Between 70 and 80 people were burned alive when a fuel tanker truck exploded in Nigeria, reportedly after a policeman fired a shot to keep passers-by away from a road accident, newspapers said on Saturday.

The truck hit a pothole and overturned on Friday on the road between Onitsha and Enugu in the south of the country, spilling its cargo of petrol, witnesses and police told the papers.

Several witnesses said that the truck exploded when a policeman who wanted to distance inquisitive onlookers fired his gun in the air. One witness said that people had been trying to scoop up and recover the spilled petrol.

At least five minibuses packed with up to 18 passengers each and two cars were incinerated by the fireball. A witness said that one of the minibuses was filled with schoolchildren, all of whom were burned alive.

"Immediately the policeman shot into the air, the tanker burst into flames that engulfed other vehicles that were close by and also trapped some of the people that were gathered around the scene who were not fast enough to escape," a witness told The Nation newspaper.

Anambra state road safety director Ben Ekenna admitted local roads were in a bad state and was quoted as saying that, "if something isn't done quickly, tragedies like this will happen again."

Accidents on Nigeria's poorly maintained inter-city roads are common, with trucks habitually driving at breakneck speeds.

Nigerian newspapers are daily filled with images of overturned trucks, flooded or collapsed roads and massive potholes.

Almost everything in Nigeria, including the vast country's petrol and oil demands, are transported by road because of a lack of rail infrastructure, increasing the possibility of accidents.

Federal road safety body FRSC says that around 400 people are killed every month by road accidents in Nigeria.

When he was elected in May 2007, President Umaru Yar'adua promised to improved road and rail transport in the country of 140 million people.

Last June a road safety expert said Nigeria needs to treat the carnage on its roads as a national emergency.

Apollos Jediel, a coordinator of the National Emergency Management Agency, said "we are daily being confronted by an epidemic that kills and maims on the scale of major infectious diseases like malaria, tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS."