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Death toll rises in Zimbabwe bus crash

By ANDREW MELDRUM

HARARE, Zimbabwe -- President Robert Mugabe called a weekend bus crash that killed 89 people a national disaster, and he promised to take action to end a spate of road accidents in the southern African country.

The bus, carrying 98 student athletes, careened off a mountain road Saturday night in Zimbabwe's mountainous eastern Nyanga region, overturned and plunged into a deep ravine, according to the state-run news service.

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Eighty-three high school age students, most of them 13 to 15 years old; five teachers; and the bus driver died in the crash 6 miles from their school.

The students of Regina Coelli Secondary School were returning from a sporting event held at a rival school.

The crash in the eastern mountain district of Nyanga, near the Mozambique border, has focused national attention on the dilapidated state of the country's buses and the lax driving standards.

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'As we mourn the victims of the latest tragedy, let all road users know that haste and recklessness only brings about more carnage,' Mugabe said Sunday night.

'My government continues to be concerned with the needless loss of life and is even more determined to take steps to put an end to the tragic and unnecessary loss,' he said.

The school bus crash is the worst of a series of road accidents in the last nine years. Zimbabwe, nearly the size of California, has had six major bus disasters since 1982. The most recent in 1990 killed 79 Zimbabweans.

The government will make funds available to pay for the burials of those who were killed in the accident and will pay some compensation to the poor rural families whose childern died under national disaster provisions.

Mugabe's statement indicates his government may take new action to reform bus operation regulations.

Zimbabwean buses are often overcrowded and drivers travel at dangerously high speeds.

A chronic shortage of foreign currency has kept the country from updating its fleet. Most buses are more than 20 years old and in poor repair. New tires are also in very short supply.

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The school bus crash appears to have been caused by the driver running at excessive speeds along the twisting mountain road. When a rear tire burst the driver was unable to control the bus and it ran off the road, into a ravine and overturned.

Police investigators found that the bus was not in good repair. Its drive shaft was tied together with makeshift wire and it was particularly unsuited for high speeds on the mountain road marked by hairpin turns the police report said.

Schoolteacher Liliosa Manjora, one of the survivors, said she and other teachers had asked the driver three times to slow down, particularly after the bus had gone off the road and nearly ran into a ditch. But the driver continued to speed, she said.

Shortly before the accident several terrified students pleaded for the bus driver to stop and let them walk the remaining 6 miles to the school, but he refused, the schoolteacher said.

Mugabe's statement indicates that the country may be ready to effect more stringent rules for bus drivers and allocate more resources toward modernizing the country's aged transport fleet.

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