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'Prime suspect' in deadly Kenya gas blast placed in detention

By AFP
Kenya At least six people lost their lives in the gas blast and massive fireball that ensued.  By LUIS TATO AFPFile
FEB 6, 2024 LISTEN
At least six people lost their lives in the gas blast and massive fireball that ensued. By LUIS TATO (AFP/File)

The main suspect in a deadly gas blast and blaze in a densely populated area of Nairobi that killed six people and injured around 280 was Tuesday placed in detention after appearing in court.

A truck loaded with gas canisters exploded late Thursday, triggering a ferocious fireball in the Embakasi area of southeastern Nairobi.

Derrick Kimathi, who police said rented the "illegal" gas depot where the disaster occurred, was escorted by police to a court in Nairobi, wearing a black beanie and face mask.

His lawyer has previously said Kimathi would cooperate with the police but denied he was operating the site where the blast took place as a gas filling plant.

Kenya's Directorate of Criminal Investigations (DCI) had announced the arrest of Kimathi along with three officials from the National Environment Management Agency (NEMA) who are accused of culpability over the tragedy.

The four were placed in detention on Tuesday.

DCI investigating officer Isaac Tenei told the court: "We are still investigating this matter and we require 21 days to complete the investigations.

"The respondents are a flight risk and there are fears they could interfere with witnesses and that is why we need them detained."

The blaze left a trail of destruction in the Mradi district of Embakasi.  By LUIS TATO AFP The blaze left a trail of destruction in the Mradi district of Embakasi. By LUIS TATO (AFP)

In its statement on X, formerly Twitter, DCI had described Kimathi as the "prime suspect" but gave no details about when or where the arrests of the suspects took place.

NEMA staff have been accused of wrongly giving a licence allowing an LPG filling and storage plant to operate in such a densely populated area.

"Five other suspects are still at large and are wanted by the DCI to answer to their crimes," the DCI statement said, accompanied by photographs of the suspects.

These include the manager of the site, another two NEMA employees, a truck driver and another driver, it said.

'Incompetence and corruption'

President William Ruto, without mentioning NEMA, said licences had been wrongly issued for gas installations in residential areas "because of incompetence and corruption".

"Those fellows who are involved in this... they must be dismissed and they must be prosecuted for the crimes that they have committed."

Map of Kenya locating its capital city of Nairobi.  By Sylvie HUSSON, Sabrina BLANCHARD, Valentin GUELET AFPFile Map of Kenya locating its capital city of Nairobi. By Sylvie HUSSON, Sabrina BLANCHARD, Valentin GUELET (AFP/File)

The huge inferno in the Mradi residential estate in Embakasi left a trail of destruction, destroying vehicles, business premises and homes.

Embakasi has a population of almost one million, according to the 2019 census, and lies close to Kenya's international airport.

NEMA had said on Saturday that a company, Maxxis Nairobi Energy, obtained a permit to operate a gas plant at the site in February last year.

But the agency said it had noted "with great concern, some serious gaps" in the issuance of the licence and suspended four of its employees pending further investigation.

The Petroleum Institute of East Africa said on Friday that the owner of the gas depot and some customers had previously been convicted and sentenced in May 2023, without disclosing their identities.

The fire destroyed vehicles, business premises and residential homes.  By LUIS TATO AFPFile The fire destroyed vehicles, business premises and residential homes. By LUIS TATO (AFP/File)

It said the proprietor continued operating the facility "without even the bare minimum safety standards and qualified LPG personnel as required by law".

Kenya's Energy and Petroleum Regulatory Authority (EPRA) also said it had denied permission three times last year for the construction of an LPG storage and filling plant at the site.

Kimathi's lawyer Wandugi Karathe told the media at the weekend: "My client refutes at this time all the incorrect allegations which have been aired and published in the media, tacitly pointing at him as the person responsible for the unfortunate incident".

He insisted Kimathi had been operating a garage on the premises, not a gas filling plant, and said the truck that exploded was "trespassing without his knowledge".

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