At least 100 feared dead after explosion at illegal Nigerian oil refinery

People gather at the site of the explosion that took place the day before at an illegal oil refinery in Imo state. Credit: AP

A manhunt is underway after at least 100 people were believed to have been killed in an explosion at an illegal oil refining depot in Nigeria, officials have said.

The explosion at the Ohaji-Egbema local government area in Imo state, southern Nigeria, 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 caught up in the explosion- which occurred on Friday night- while many others attempted to escape the blaze by running into wooded areas.

"The fire outbreak occurred at an illegal bunkering site and it affected over 100 people who were burnt beyond recognition," the state commissioner for petroleum resources, Goodluck Opiah, said.

Mr Opiah added that those who died in the disaster are estimated to be within “the range of 100” and that “a lot of them ran into the bush with the burns and they died there”.

“There are no arrests yet but the two culprits are on the run with the police now looking for them,” Declan Emelumba, the Imo State commissioner for information, said, although officials did not reveal the identities of the suspects.

In a statement, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari called the explosion a “catastrophe and a national disaster”.

He 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.

President Muhammadu Buhari described the incident in Imo state as a "catastrophe and a national disaster". Credit: AP

Although Nigeria is Africa’s largest producer of crude oil, for many years its oil production capacity has been limited by chronic challenges around storage of the resource.

Poor job prospects and poverty in the oil-producing Niger Delta mean that illegal crude refining is an attractive way to make money for some.

Shady business operators often avoid regulators by setting up refineries in remote areas such as the one that exploded in Imo.

Gas flares belonging to the Agip Oil company are seen across farmland in Idu, Niger Delta. Credit: AP

The refining process can be extremely dangerous as crude oil is tapped from a network of pipelines and distilled into products in makeshift tanks.

Friday's incident came months after an explosion and fire at an illegal oil refinery in Nigeria's Rivers state left at least 25 people dead last October.

As many as 30 illegal oil refineries were busted in the Niger Delta region in just two weeks, Nigeria’s Defence Department said earlier this month when it announced a task force to curb crude oil theft.