Kazakhstan’s Interior Ministry says investigators think the cause of a bus fire that killed 52 Uzbek citizens on January 18 was an open flame on a portable gas cooker that was being used for heat inside the vehicle.
In a statement released on January 19, the ministry said two drivers and three passengers who survived the fire testified about the use of the open-flame device.
It also said investigators had ruled out "criminal activity" or a road accident as a cause of the fire.
Uzbekistan’s semiofficial Podrobno.uz news website late on January 18 quoted a survivor who said the bus did not have a functioning heater and passengers were using the portable gas cooker to warm themselves.
That report said drivers were also storing gasoline containers inside the bus to refuel the vehicle during its 2,200-kilometer journey across Kazakhstan’s sparsely inhabited steppes, where there are few fuel stations.
The survivor was quoted as saying one gasoline container was kicked over near the cooker, igniting a fire that quickly engulfed the overcrowded bus and left most passengers little time to escape.
RIA Novosti reported that a side door on the bus was blocked, preventing passengers from escaping the flames.
The tragedy occurred in the Irgiz district of Kazakhstan’s northwestern Aqtobe region while the bus was traveling from Kazakhstan’s southern city of Shymkent to the Russian city of Samara.
Many people from Uzbekistan travel to Russia as migrant workers, and the road routes between the two countries cross Kazakhstan.
Uzbekistan’s Emergency Situations Ministry on January 19 released what it called a preliminary list of victims.
The list contains the names of 29 men who were killed and two Uzbek passengers who survived.
It said all 31 men were from Uzbekistan's eastern province of Namangan.
The Uzbek ministry did not identify the other 21 Uzbek victims of the fire.
Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev has sent a telegram to Uzbek President Shavkat Mirizyoev expressing condolences as both countries launched investigations into the cause of the tragedy.
Kazakhstan's government revealed late on January 18 that the bus was a 29-year-old German-built Setra that did not have a license to transport passengers.
It said the technical safety certificate for the bus had expired in 2016.
In Uzbekistan, Mirziyoev announced the creation of a special government commission late on January 18 to investigate the deaths of Uzbek citizens in the fire.
That commission is headed by Uzbek Prime Minister Abdullah Aripov.
With reporting by RFE/RL's Kazakh and Uzbek service, Tengrinews, KazTAG, Kazinform, Interfax, Kazinform, dpa, AFP, and Podrobno.uz