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Stowaway passengers killed in DR Congo train disaster

Estimates of the death toll have varied widely. The minister for humanitarian action, Steve Mbikayi, gave the first toll as 50 dead.

DRC flag. Picture: Pixabay.com

LUBUMBASHI, DR Congo - A freight train derailed in southeastern Democratic Republic of Congo on Thursday, killing between 10 and 50 people stowing away onboard according to conflicting reports, in the latest rail tragedy to strike the vast central African nation.

The accident occurred when several of the train's carriages tipped over in a remote area in Tanganyika province at around 6am (0500 GMT).

Estimates of the death toll have varied widely.

The minister for humanitarian action, Steve Mbikayi, gave the first toll as 50 dead.

But the provincial governor, Zoe Kabila, who is the brother of former president Joseph Kabila, then tweeted: "Correction... provisional toll 10 dead, 30 injured and three railcars overturned."

And the UN's mission in DRC told AFP that Indonesian peacekeepers at the scene had identified 23 people killed and 14 wounded, as of 1500 GMT.

Such confusion about numbers is common in the conflict-riven country, where even the population of 80 million is a rough estimate - the last census was carried out in 1984.

'I SAW A LOT OF DEATHS'

But witnesses at the scene have consistently said the death toll was high.

A member of the Catholic Church's Justice and Peace Commission in Congo, Ernest Lukwesa, said the injured arriving in Nyunzu had told him between 50 and 100 people were killed.

"The number of dead is still difficult to determine. There are some people trapped under the carriages," he told AFP.

One of the survivors, Guillaume Yambi Musala, said between 30 and 40 people were in each carriage.

"I saw a lot of deaths. As it was night, it was impossible to know the exact number," he told AFP by telephone.

"Because there was no passenger train, I took a place on the freight train after paying 15,000 Congolese francs ($9) to the conductor," he said, adding that the conductor did not give him a receipt.

Stowaways are common on trains in DR Congo, which has only a few thousand kilometres of paved roads to cover the country's 2.3 million square kilometres.

With service by passenger trains patchy to non-existent, often people illegally stow away on freight trains as they have no other means to traverse such long distances.

Railways in DRC have a poor record for safety, hampered by derelict tracks and decrepit locomotives, many of them dating from the 1960s.

In March, at least 24 people were killed and 31 were injured when a freight train carrying illegal passengers crashed in the central region of Kasai.

In November last year, 10 stowaways were killed and 24 injured near the eastern town of Samba when the brakes failed on a freight train.

Like many state companies in DR Congo, the national rail company SNCC is on the brink of bankruptcy.

After Kabila stepped down in January, its employees urged his successor, Felix Tshisekedi, to pay months of back wages. The SNCC's former head Sylvestre Ilunga is the country's current prime minister.

President Tshisekedi has pledged to spend more on infrastructure, but the state coffers have been bare, despite the country's vast mineral resources.

Opposition figure Moise Katumbi said that "the rehabilitation of the railway, long neglected by the former regime, is a priority to spare the lives and suffering of our compatriots."

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