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Bulgaria bus crash kills at least 46 people

North Macedonia has declared three-days of national mourning after 46 people, including 12 children, were killed in a tourist bus in Bulgaria.

Calling the incident “a huge tragedy,” the prime minister, Zoran Zaev, described how seven of the passengers survived only by leaping from the vehicle when a sudden explosion engulfed it in flames.

“[They] broke the windows of the bus and managed to escape and save themselves,” he told reporters. The rest were incinerated beyond recognition.

“The picture is terrifying, terrifying,” said Bulgaria’s interior minister, Boyko Rashkov. “I have never seen anything like it before.”

The victims, with the exception of a Belgian citizen, were all from the 2 million strong nation’s ethnic Albanian minority.

The coach had been returning from a weekend trip to Istanbul when it is believed to have hit a highway barrier in the early hours of Tuesday. The impact of the collision resulted in its front right tyre exploding before a blazing inferno engulfed the bus, according to officials in Skopje.

“There is some speculation that the driver may have fallen asleep at the wheel,” said one, requesting anonymity.

Bulgarian investigators who spent much of the day at the crash site said the bus had been travelling as part of a convoy of four. Unlike the other vehicles, however, it had stopped at a petrol station near the Bulgarian capital, Sofia, about an hour before the accident. There the driver is reported to have stocked up on petrol, filling jerry cans with fuel, which he allegedly then placed in the front of the vehicle, according to news outlets in North Macedonia.

“Human error by the driver or a technical malfunction are the two initial versions for the accident,” said Bulgaria’s investigative service chief Borislav Sarafov.

Experts said if canisters were inside the vehicle it would explain the force of the explosion and why the back of the bus, from which the survivors had jumped, was much better preserved than the front. Greece’s state-run TV suggested that some of the passengers, taking advantage of the plunging Turkish lira, had also bought jerry cans of fuel and put it in the vehicle’s hold.

But the mayor of Pernik, a village close to the crash scene, also said the motorway was in poor condition and that accidents had frequently occurred in the spot.

The EU’s poorest member state, Bulgaria has one of the highest rates of fatalities on its roads in the 27-member bloc, often blamed on outdated cars and poor infrastructure.

Zaev confirmed there were 12 children on board, including twin brothers who were four years old. Others were mostly young people, aged between 25 and 30.

Registered in North Macedonia, the bus belonged to a fleet owned by Besa Trans, a travel firm that organises trips to European and Balkan destinations. It was thought that many of the passengers had boarded the coach in Tetovo, the north western town regarded as the unofficial capital of the landlocked state’s sizeable ethnic Albanian population. Local media named two of the victims as Gazmund Ukali, 27 and Albina Beluli, 23, both from Tetovo and due to be married. The couple had gone to Istanbul to celebrate Ukali’s birthday.

As news of the accident filtered through, distraught relatives gathered outside the bus company’s offices in Skopje.

Bekim Aliti, whose wife was among the passengers, told local TV that most had been left in the dark with authorities providing almost no information.

“Nobody is telling us anything,” he complained, saying he had last heard his wife’s voice when the bus had set off from Istanbul. It was unclear if she was among those who had survived or not.

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