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52 Uzbeks killed in Kazakhstan bus inferno

Fifty-two Uzbeks were killed Thursday when a Russia-bound bus they were travelling on caught fire in the central Asian country of Kazakhstan.

The bus burst into flames at 10:30 am local time (0430 GMT) with 55 passengers and two drivers on board, Kazakhstan’s emergency services ministry said.

“Five people who managed to escape are receiving medical assistance. The rest died on the spot,” the ministry said, without elaborating on the cause of the blaze.

All those who died were Uzbek nationals while the five survivors were Uzbeks and Kazakhs, the Kazakh ministry for investments and development said in a statement on Facebook.

Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev sent a telegram of condolences to Uzbek counterpart Shavkat Mirziyoyev saying he was “sharing the irreplaceable loss.”

The fire broke out in a 29-year-old German-built Setra bus that did not have a licence to transport passengers and whose technical safety certificate had run out in 2016, said the ministry, which is also responsible for transport and roads.

Kazakh media reported the passengers were migrant workers travelling to Russia.

Kazakhstan’s emergency services ministry set up a hotline for victims’ relatives.

Both Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have set up government commissions to establish the cause of the accident and identify victims.

– Short circuit blamed –

Regional emergency service officials initially blamed the fire on a short circuit and said the bus was overloaded, Interfax-Kazakstan news agency reported.

Kazakhstan emergency ministry representative Imankulov did not confirm this however, telling AFP: “It’s too early to talk about the reasons for the fire.”

Kazakhstan’s latest official statement said the bus could carry up to 59 passengers.

Panic broke out on board the bus, hindering evacuation, while survivors managed to climb through a door and window, Kazakh news site BNews reported.

Two of the survivors suffered burns to their hands, emergency services officials told AFP, while others suffered minor injuries.

The bus was travelling from the southern Kazakh town of Shymkent to the Russian city of Kazan on the Volga river, a distance of around 2,100 kilometres (1300 miles), the Kazakh investments and development ministry said.

Earlier the emergency situations ministry said it was going to another Russian city, Samara.

Video broadcasts by Russian and Kazakh media showed black smoke and flames billowing from the vehicle which had veered across a flat stretch of road carving through a snowy steppe. A photograph taken later showed the vehicle completely charred.

The road accident is one of the deadliest in the last five years, with the worst toll in Afghanistan in 2016 when two buses collided with an oil tanker, killing at least 73 people.

The tragedy, which struck in a remote area around 320 kilometres (199 miles) from the regional centre of Aktobe, highlights the high accident rate in the region.

In October last year, a Kazakh-registered bus with Uzbek passengers was hit by a train in Russia after breaking down on the tracks, killing 19 aboard the bus.

In 2015, 16 people, including three children, died in Kazakhstan when a minibus collided with a van on April 20, 2015.

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