BRAZZAVILLE  - Blasts rocked the capital of the Republic of Congo on Sunday after a weapons depot caught fire, officials said, killing at least 206 people and forcing thousands to flee.

A morgue in Brazzaville took in 136 bodies till afternoon, as more continued to arrive. A local hospital reported at least 237 patients wounded in the blasts.

Blasts flattened many buildings in the northern part of Brazzaville and sent more than 2,000 fleeing their homes. The munitions depot is near the president’s private residence, but he was at his official residence in another part of town and was not hurt. President Denis Sassou-Nguesso later visited the morgue, a hospital and the military hospital.

The explosions shook houses in Brazzaville and echoed across the Congo River to the capital of the neighbouring country.

Didier Boutsindi of the presidential office said untold numbers of people were trapped in a church that collapsed.

“Many of the faithful are trapped in the debris of the church,” he said. “Several of the dead have been taken out and I confirm there are more deaths inside.” He said his uncle was killed when his home collapsed on him. Another explosion struck the area early in the afternoon, causing panic among those gathered there, including journalists.

A European diplomat said earlier that at least 150 bodies had piled up in military hospitals in the city and that more than 1,500 people had been injured in the blasts. “There are more than 100 dead,” Interior Minister Raymond Mboulou said by telephone, citing civilian and military hospitals. “The injured are difficult to enumerate for the moment.”

Mboulou said the area around the munitions depot had been devastated with “many houses burned to the ground”.

He added that President Denis Sassou Nguesso had taken charge of relief operations. “Therefore we have requisitioned pharmacies and we are in the process of finding ways and means to provide shelter for citizens,” he said.

A number of wounded, many wearing military uniforms, were seen receiving first aid in the streets, an AFP correspondent said. At least five strong explosions were heard between 8:00 am (0700 GMT) and 10:45 am (0945 GMT). In addition to the blasts, there were other weaker detonations which continued into the late morning, hampering firefighters and rescue workers. “We count at least 150 dead in the military hospitals and around 1,500 injured, some of them seriously,” the European diplomat said when contacted by telephone from Paris.

There was no official word from the government on the cause of the explosions.

“There are many people on the street. They are running away, barefoot, carrying parcels on their heads. Some are hardly dresssed. There are no cars, no buses, no taxis,” she added.

River traffic between Kinshasa and Brazzaville was also suspended, a Kinshasa port official said. Xinhua news agency said some 140 Chinese workers from the Beijing Construction Engineering Group were working near the munitions depot when the blasts occurred.

The dormitory building of China’s Huawei technology giant was badly damaged, but there were no casualties reported there, Chinese officials said.