At least 34 people died in Benin near Nigeria's border on Saturday when a contraband fuel depot exploded into flames, sending up a black cloud of smoke into the sky and leaving dozens of charred bodies at the site, a government official and residents said.
The blaze erupted at a warehouse for smuggled fuel in the southern Benin town of Seme Podji, where cars, motorbikes and tricycle taxis came to stock up on fuel, according to local residents.
Nigeria is a major oil producer and fuel smuggling is common inside the country and along its borders, with illegal refineries, fuel dumps and pipelines sometimes causing fires.
Benin's Interior Minister Alassane Seidou told reporters a serious fire had occurred in the town, but did not give details about exactly how it had happened.
"Unfortunately we have 34 deaths including two babies. Their bodies are charred because the cause of the fire is smuggled fuel," the official said.
The minister said another 20 people were being treated in hospital, including some in serious condition.
For decades, Nigeria's low-cost subsidised gasoline was transported illegally by road to neighbouring countries, primarily Benin, where it is resold on the black market by informal sellers.
When he came to office in May, Nigeria's President Bola Ahmed Tinubu abandoned the long-standing subsidy meant to keep petrol prices artificially low for Nigerians. The subsidy cost the government billions of dollars a year and Tinubu made it his first of a series of reforms aimed at revamping Nigeria's economy and attracting more investment.
That decision caused a tripling in petrol prices in Nigeria but also impacted the price of black market fuel smuggled over the border into Benin and other countries.
Nigeria's subsidy decision illustrated Benin's deep economic dependence on its giant neighbour, with 215 million inhabitants, the continent's largest economy and status as one of Africa’s top oil producers.