LAGOS, April 26 — Nigerian authorities yesterday gathered the charred remains of over 100 people killed in an explosion at an illegal refinery in the south of the country and prepared for a mass burial after an accident described as a “catastrophe.”

The blast late Friday at a site between Rivers and Imo states was one of the worst in years in an area where oil theft and illegal refining are legion, inflicting huge losses and environmental damage in Africa’s largest crude producer.

Pipeline fires are commonplace in Nigeria, in part because of poor maintenance but also because of thieves who vandalise lines to siphon off oil, refine it at makeshift plants and sell the fuel on the black market.

“As at this morning, the death toll stands at 110, while many others with burns are receiving treatment in the hospitals,” said Ifeanyi Nnaji of the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) in the area.

Nnaji said the victims were burnt beyond recognition, making it difficult for their families to identify their bodies.

“We have gathered the charred remains of the victims for a mass burial,” Nnaji told AFP, later confirming the ceremony would be today.

He said dozens of people had gathered at the site for “illegal business” before the blast that burned over 100 to death.

Burnt-out vehicles and jerry-cans used in scoop up stolen crude and petroleum products littered the scene of the carnage, he said.

Friday’s incident was the latest to hit Opec oil-producer Nigeria, which has struggled to attract new investment to its struggling petroleum industry.

The worst pipeline blast in Nigeria happened in southern town of Jesse in October 1998, killing over 1,000 villagers.

Crude oil is tapped by thieves from a web of pipelines owned by major oil companies and refined illegally into products.

Mele Kyari, head of Nigerian National Petroleum Company (NNPC), said earlier this month that Nigeria loses 250,000 barrels of crude to oil thieves daily.

Most people in the Niger delta live in poverty even though the country is the biggest oil producer on the continent, with an output of just under two million barrels per day.

Local resident Ferdinand Amanze said joblessness was driving people to steal the nation’s crude oil.

“(The) Unemployment rate is too high in this local government,” he told AFP at the site of the blast, adding that oil firms were not doing enough for host communities in oil-producing regions.

Idris Musa, head of the state-run National Oil Spills Detection and Response Agency, said an investigation was under way.

Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari on Sunday described the incident as a “catastrophe and a national disaster,” his office said.

Those behind the illegal refinery “must all be caught and made to face justice”, he added.

Local youth leader Anyaoke Bright called for urgent measures to address the demands of communities where oil is produced.

“The government and oil companies should act fast so that this kind of thing will not happen again.” — AFP