LAGOS (Reuters) - Seventy bodies have been recovered from the rubble of a collapsed church building in Lagos but remain unidentified, a Nigerian official said on Wednesday, questioning South Africa’s assertion that 67 of the victims had come from there.
South African President Jacob Zuma said on Tuesday night that at least 67 of his compatriots had died in Friday’s accident at the Synagogue Church of All Nations in Nigeria, describing it as one of the worst tragedies in his country’s recent history.
Nigeria’s National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA), however, said it was too early to know how many people had been killed or their nationalities.
“The president (Zuma) is not in Nigeria. We are working on what we have,” NEMA spokesman Ibrahim Farinloye told Reuters, adding that 131 people had been rescued alive.
“The church management up until now has not estimated or given us any list of people trapped, so we are just working on blind guesswork until we get to the last rubble.”
The collapse occurred when three extra stories were being added to the existing two of a guest house of the church compound, where visitors from abroad flock to stay.
Led by the charismatic “Prophet” T.B. Joshua, the Lagos Pentacostal church attracts a global following of Christians who believe Joshua is able to perform miracles including curing the ill and raising the dead from the grave.
The regular influx of visitors from abroad for the church’s services, which can last up to a week, creates demand for accommodation that the church’s own guest house has been unable to meet, and often spills over into local hotels.
Several African leaders have traveled to Nigeria to meet with spiritual “healer” Joshua, including former Malawian President Joyce Banda and Julius Malema, the leader of South Africa’s ultra-leftist opposition Economic Freedom Fighters.
Members of the church had at first prevented emergency officials from participating in the rescue, making it difficult to establish a toll for the injured and dead, originally estimated at 41. State rescuers were allowed in on Saturday.
Pretoria described the search and rescue operation as “very fluid” but defended its count of 67 dead, saying it was based on records and information on the ground from five tour groups that had arranged for South African worshippers to go to Lagos.
“This number is based on credible information,” foreign ministry spokesman Clayson Monyela said.
Late on Tuesday Zuma told the SABC national broadcaster that an unknown number of South Africans were “not yet accounted for” and that the nation needed to “grieve together.”
Spokesman Mac Maharaj later said the government believed around 300 South Africans from four to five groups were visiting the church on Friday but it was not clear how many were on the spot when the building collapsed.
“It’s a very popular church with South Africans,” Maharaj said.
South Africa and Nigeria share strong business and diplomatic ties but have occasional quarrels, notably when Pretoria deported 125 Nigerians in 2012 over suspicions their yellow fever certificates were fake.
Nigeria responded by briefly refusing South African residents entry and branding Pretoria xenophobic.
Africa’s most populous nation overtook South Africa as the continent’s largest economy this year, heightening rivalry between the two countries. South African firms MTN, Shoprite and Standard Bank all have profitable operations in Nigeria.
Additional reporting by Ed Stoddard and Ed Cropley; Writing by Joe Brock; Editing by Hugh Lawson