KINSHASA (AFP) - At least 57 people were killed when a passenger train sped off the rails in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the government said Wednesday, raising an earlier death toll as difficult rescue operations continued in the remote, swampy area.
The newly purchased locomotive flew off the rails Tuesday as it went around a bend in a swampy area in the southeast of the country, causing 15 of the train's 19 cars to overturn, said the government's spokesman and a journalist at the scene.
The official death toll was first given as 37 people, but government spokesman Lambert Mende had warned it was likely to rise, and later gave an updated toll of 57.
Other sources put the figure even higher. The journalist said a local official had given a toll of about 60 dead and 86 wounded, while local human rights activist Timothee Mbuya said that "so far at least 100 bodies have been taken from the train and buried, because there's no morgue."
The train was travelling north from the town of Kamina in the southern province of Katanga to Mwene-Ditu in the diamond-mining province of Kasai-Oriental.
Witnesses said it was carrying hundreds of passengers both in and on its cars, many of whom had paid an illegal reduced fare to ride the train without a proper ticket.
They spoke of a grisly scene with many people still trapped inside the wreckage.
"The activist I sent to the scene spoke of hearing cries from people stuck in the cars because there was no adequate emergency response," said Mbuya.
"People are trapped and they need a 100-tonne crane to lift the cars, but the area is inaccessible. The Mwyi river runs between the tracks and the road, and it's a swampy zone that can only be accessed on foot," said the journalist.
He said an army unit had been sent to help extract both the wounded and the dead from the wreckage.
There is concern that bodies could begin to rot because of the intense heat in the area, he added, saying there was already a "sickening" smell from rotting fish the train had been carrying.
Mende said it appeared that engine failure had caused the train to speed out of control, but added that an investigation was under way into the exact reason for the crash.
The transport and health ministers are on their way to Katanga, where they will take a helicopter to the crash site, he said.
Train accidents are fairly common in the restive country, whose antiquated rail network is currently undergoing a refurbishment paid for by the World Bank.
The rail system, originally built by Belgium to extract its then-colony's ivory and rubber, has languished with only scant investment since independence in 1960.
In September 2012, four people were killed and another 37 injured in an accident north of the second largest city Lubumbashi, the capital of Katanga province.