At least 45 people, including 12 children, have died after a bus carrying mostly North Macedonian tourists crashed in flames on a highway in western Bulgaria hours before daybreak.
- Officials said survivors were taken to hospital in the capital Sofia with burns
- It is believed the bus either crashed and then caught fire, or caught fire before crashing
- The North Macedonian embassy in Bulgaria said most of the victims were North Macedonian
Seven people who leapt from the burning bus were rushed to hospital in Sofia and were in stable conditions, hospital staff said.
Bulgaria’s interior ministry said 45 people died, making it the most deadly bus accident in the Balkan country’s history.
Interior Minister Boyko Rashkov said bodies were “clustered inside and are burnt to ash”.
The cause of the accident was unclear, but the bus appeared to have hit a highway barrier either before or after it caught fire, Bulgarian officials said.
Television footage showed the bus charred and gutted by fire in the middle of the highway, which was wet from rain.
“We have an enormous tragedy here,” Bulgarian interim Prime Minister Stefan Yanev told reporters.
“I take this opportunity to send my condolences to the relatives of the victims,” Mr Yanev said.
“Let’s hope we learn lessons from this tragic incident and we can prevent such incidents in the future.”
Sleeping passengers woken by explosion
Authorities say the accident happened on Struma highway, about 45 kilometres west of Sofia around 2am.
The coach party was returning to Skopje from a weekend holiday to Istanbul, a trip of about 800 km.
North Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev said he had spoken to one of the survivors who told him the passengers were sleeping when they were woken by the sound of an explosion.
“I am terrified. This is such a huge tragedy,” he told private television channel BTV.
Bulgarian investigative service chief Borislav Sarafov said four buses from a North Macedonian travel agency had entered Bulgaria late on Monday from Turkey.
“Human mistake by the driver or a technical malfunction are the two initial versions for the accident,” he said.
Bulgarian news agency Novinite said representatives from North Macedonia’s embassy visited a hospital where some of the victims were taken.
In 2019, Bulgaria, a European Union nation of 7 million, had the second-highest road fatality rate in the 27-nation bloc, with 89 people killed per million population, according to European Commission data.