LAGOS - An explosion at an illegal oil refinery in southern Nigeria has killed at least 80 people, the emergency services said Sunday.

The blast occurred late Friday at the illegal site between the southern oil states of Rivers and Imo, police said.

“We recovered at least 80 badly burnt bodies at the scene,” Ifeanyi Nnaji of the National Emergency Management Agency in the area, told AFP, adding that the toll could rise. “We learnt many bodies are in nearby bushes and forests as some illegal operators and their patrons scampered to safety.”

Many people had “severe burns”, he said, adding some later died in hospital. Nnaji said several burnt vehicles and jerry-cans used in scooping stolen crude and petroleum products littered the scene of the carnage.

Local media said more than 100 people, mostly youths, were burnt to death.

Police confirmed the explosion happened late Friday at the site of an illegal refinery where operators and their patrons had gathered for business but did not provide figures on how many died.

Idris Musa, head of the of state-run National Oil Spills Detection and Response Agency told AFP an investigation was under way.

He said the explosion “claimed several lives, especially those engaged in illegal oil refining and bunkering”. An NGO in the oil-producing Niger delta said corpses of the victims littered the area, but could not immediately say how many were killed. “Several bodies burnt beyond recognition lay on the ground while others who may have attempted to run for safety are seen hanging on some tree branches,” said Fyneface Dumnamene, executive director of Youths and Environmental Advocacy Centre.