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Bus accident in Bulgaria kills at least 46 people | Bulgaria

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

Calling the incident a “huge tragedy”, Prime Minister Zoran Zaev described how seven of the passengers only survived by jumping out of the vehicle when a sudden explosion ignited it.

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

“The picture is terrifying, terrifying,” Bulgarian Interior Minister Boyko Rashkov said. “I’ve never seen anything like it before.”

The victims, with the exception of a Belgian citizen, all belonged to the Albanian ethnic minority, 2 million strong.

The coach was returning from a weekend trip to Istanbul when he allegedly hit a motorway barrier in the early hours of Tuesday. The impact of the collision blew its front right tire before a fiery inferno engulfed the bus, officials in Skopje said.

“There is speculation that the driver may have fallen asleep at the wheel,” one said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Bulgarian investigators who spent much of the day at the crash site said the bus was part of a four-person convoy. Unlike the other vehicles, however, it had stopped at a petrol station near the Bulgarian capital, Sofia, around an hour before the crash. There, the driver reportedly filled up with gas, filling jerrycans with fuel, which he 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 of the accident,” said the head of the Bulgarian investigation service Borislav Sarafov.

Experts said that if canisters were inside the vehicle, that would explain the force of the explosion and why the rear of the bus, from which the survivors had jumped, was much better preserved than the front. Greek public television suggested that some of the passengers, taking advantage of the fall in the Turkish lira, had also bought jerry cans of fuel and put them in the vehicle’s hold.

But the mayor of Pernik, a village near the crash site, also said the highway was in poor condition and accidents had happened frequently on the spot.

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The EU’s poorest member state, Bulgaria has one of the highest rates of deaths 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 four-year-old twin brothers. The rest were mostly young people, between the ages of 25 and 30.

Registered in North Macedonia, the bus belonged to a fleet owned by Besa Trans, a travel agency that organizes trips to European and Balkan destinations. Many passengers were believed to have boarded the coach in Tetovo, the northwestern city considered the unofficial capital of the landlocked state’s large Albanian population. Local media named two of the victims as Gazmund Ukali, 27, and Albina Beluli, 23, both from Tetovo and about to get married. The couple had traveled to Istanbul to celebrate Ukali’s birthday.

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

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

“Nobody tells us anything,” he complained, saying he last heard his wife’s voice when the bus left Istanbul. It was unclear whether she was among those who survived or not.