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Cameroon Gas Toll Put at 1,200 : Traces of Toxic Cloud Remain, Evacuation Goes On, Regime Says

August 26, 1986|DAN FISHER | Times Staff Writer

YAOUNDE, Cameroon — A poisonous cloud of gases that erupted from the bottom of a volcanic lake and wafted over sleeping lakeside villages last Friday night killed at least 1,200 people and injured 300, President Paul Biya said Monday.

Biya, who visited the disaster area Sunday, added that, while the seepage has apparently stopped, there are remnants of the toxic but still unidentified gas cloud in a mountainous, six-square-mile region around Lake Nios, about 250 miles northwest of Yaounde, Cameroon's capital.

"Precautions have to be taken," the president told a small group of Israeli and Western journalists who traveled here Monday with visiting Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres. "I was told the gas had subsided, but we must still be careful."

Evacuation Goes On

Hundreds of villagers are still being evacuated, and the army and police are searching for more victims of the disaster, Biya added. Other officials said that the nearest large settlement, the town of Wum, with about 10,000 residents, was also evacuated.

The death toll could go higher as the army continues to report on its findings, Biya warned. Earlier, Information Minister Georges Ngango had said that military reports from the scene mentioned a death toll of at least 2,000.

Biya said witnesses described a sound like an explosion at Lake Nios late Friday, after most villagers had gone to bed.

Carried by Wind

"After the explosion took place and the gas came out, the wind blew it toward the villages and this is how it brought death to the people," Biya said.

The eruption spread the gas six miles around the lake, and at least one village was wiped out.

Lake Nios is in a relatively densely populated mountainous area, in a dramatic chain of volcanic peaks and valleys that reaches into eastern Nigeria and includes some of the country's most fertile agricultural lands. Villagers live in small clusters of straw and stick huts on the hillsides and grow millet and cassava.

A crisis center has been established in Bamenda, the provincial capital 50 miles from the site, where survivors are being treated.

'A Frightful Sight'

Joseph Mokassa, top staff aide to the provincial governor in Bamenda, told the Associated Press by telephone that he saw many people dead when he visited the stricken area Saturday but did not have precise figures on the toll.

"It was such a frightful sight because so many people had lost their lives," he said.

"There are three problems confronting us now," Biya told reporters. "The first one is to try to check an epidemic from coming out of this area. In doing this, we are trying to isolate this area.

"The second problem is to try to find shelter for the people being evacuated," Biya said. "And the third problem is, of course, to find treatment for people who have been evacuated."

Tents, Medicine Needed

Yaounde radio reported Monday night that it rained all day in the disaster area, which could dispel the gas and reduce the danger.

Biya thanked Israel, France, the United States and other countries that have offered disaster relief and said his nation needs tents, blankets and medicines to aid the victims.

He also pleaded for "scientific assistance which would help us put up a mechanism which can warn the people if such a thing is about to happen so that they can take measures to avoid" injury.

A 17-person Israeli army medical team flew here Monday morning on Peres' plane to aid in the disaster relief. Dr. Michael Wiener, in charge of the group, said they brought resuscitative equipment, bottled oxygen, and other materials to treat disaster victims.

Weather Hindrance

The group was to fly into the affected area soon after arriving in Cameroon, but as of Monday night it was still unclear whether they had been able to get near the scene.

Wet and windy weather hindered flight operations in much of the country Monday, and the Nios area is otherwise reachable only by dirt roads that are nearly impassable in the current rainy season.

France has sent firefighters, chemists and doctors to the areas, and Britain and West Germany have deployed relief workers.

In Washington, M. Peter McPherson, head of the U.S. Agency for International Development, said Monday that two teams of U.S. experts will be on the way to Cameroon on Wednesday.

Dr. Edward Koenigsberg, medical preparedness coordinator of the Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance, part of AID, will head the two U.S. teams. The first team will include Navy Cmdrs. Glenn Wagner and Michael Clark of the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, who will attempt to determine the victims' cause of death.

Probe of Cause

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