At least four powerful blasts hit a military base in Equatorial Guinea on Sunday, causing 20 deaths and injuring more than 600. Military buildings were destroyed and parts of civilian neighborhoods were obliterated, according to state television TVGE.

TVGE channel broadcast footage of wrecked and burning buildings at the Nkoa Ntoma military base in the economic capital of Bata, with people, including children being pulled from the rubble.

Following the early afternoon blasts, television footage showed flattened buildings and thick black smoke, and large numbers of wounded people laying on hospital floors. The health ministry posted on Twitter that medical personnel were treating people at the scene but feared that the death total may rise as there are still people missing.

“Health emergency in the Mondong Nkuantoma neighborhood of Bata following heavy explosions at the military barracks located in Bata. It is believed that there are dead and many who have disappeared under the rubble,” the ministry added.

President Teodoro Obiang Nguema said in a released statement that the explosions were caused by the negligence of a military unit “in charge of storing explosives, dynamite, and ammunition at the Nkoa Ntoma military camp.”

His son and vice president with responsibility for defense and security, Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue, appeared in the television footage inspecting the damage, accompanied by his Israeli bodyguards. He is considered the successor of his father who has ruled the country for 42 years.

Obiang Nguema added that the explosives caught fire due to “stubble-burning” by farmers that got out of control in the fields and reached buildings in which the military improperly stored explosives. The fire and resultant blasts caused damage to almost all the houses and buildings in Bata.

He made a plea for international relief aid. Equatorial Guinea is going through difficult times, he said, “due to the economic crisis caused by falling petrol prices, and the COVID-19 pandemic.” About 800,000 of Bata’s 1.4 million people live in poverty, despite the country being rich in oil and natural gas reserves. 

William Lawrence, a former regional security officer and diplomat for the U.S. Embassy, spoke with Al Jazeera and said that the country is ill-prepared to handle a catastrophe on this scale. 

“This is going to have quite a devastating effect on many levels,” he said. “Equatorial Guinea is one of the richest countries in Africa, with the least distribution of its oil wealth. There have been many coup attempts since independence and so this is going to rock the boat.”

“I don’t think there’s a lot of disaster preparedness training on this scale, and I suspect a lot of what’s going on today is winging it and already the country’s health services are hit quite hard by COVID-19, so this will be an added burden,” he added.