Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev sent a telegram conveying condolences to his Uzbek counterpart as both countries opened up investigations into the cause of a massive bus fire that killed 52 Uzbeks as they traveled through Kazakhstan.
The inferno broke out on the bus as it was traveling through Kazakhstan’s northwestern Aqtobe region carrying what authorities said were mostly Uzbek migrant workers on their way to Russia.
The accident had only five survivors and was one of the deadliest to occur worldwide in the last five years.
The Kazakh Ministry for Investments and Development said in a statement late on January 18 that the bus was a German-built Setra, which was 29 years old, did not have a license to transport passengers, and whose technical safety certificate had run out in 2016.
The bus was traveling from the southern Kazakh town of Shymkent to the Russian city of Samara on the Volga River, a distance of around 2,100 kilometers, the ministry said.
RIA Novosti reported that a side door on the bus was blocked, preventing passengers from escaping the flames.
Russian news agency Interfax reported that Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev created a special government commission late on January 18 to investigate the death of Uzbeks in the fire, headed by Uzbek Prime Minister Abdullah Aripov.
Interfax reported that Uzbek investigators, who departed from Tashkent to Aqtobe by plane late on January 18, are initially focusing on possible "violations of traffic rules or operation of road vehicles."
State news agency Kazinform and other media reported that Kazakhstan has also set up a special criminal investigation.
Aqtilek Kenes, the head of the regional Emergency Situations Department, told reporters earlier that all of the victims were citizens of Uzbekistan.
Officials said the bus caught fire at 10:30 a.m. local time about 10 kilometers from the village of Qalybai on a highway that links Samara with Shymkent.
Ruslan Imankulov, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry’s Emergency Situations Committee in Astana, said the five survivors included two Kazakh bus drivers and three citizens of Uzbekistan.
He said the bus was registered in the country's South Kazakhstan region.
Video broadcasts by Russian and Kazakh media showed black smoke and flames billowing from the vehicle, which had veered across a flat stretch of road carving through a snowy steppe. A photograph taken later showed the vehicle completely charred.
Many people from Uzbekistan travel to Russia as migrant workers, and the road routes between the two countries cross Kazakhstan.
Local police, investigators, rescue workers, and psychologists worked at the scene of the fire on January 18.
The regional Emergency Situations Department said an initial investigation suggested that an electrical malfunction could have triggered the tragedy, and a "preliminary theory" was that the fire was caused by a "short circuit."
The tragedy, which struck in a remote area around 320 kilometers from the regional center of Aqtobe, was the latest of a number of deadly accidents in the region.
In October 2017, a Kazakh-registered bus with Uzbek passengers was hit by a train in Russia after breaking down on the tracks, killing 19 aboard the bus.
In 2015, 16 people, including three children, died in Kazakhstan when a minibus collided with a van.
With reporting by RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, Tengrinews, KazTAG, Kazinform, Interfax, Kazinform, dpa, RIA Novosti, and AFP