Bosnek (Bulgaria) (AFP) -
North Macedonia called for three days of national mourning after a tourist bus carrying its citizens caught fire and crashed in Bulgaria on Tuesday, killing 46 people in Europe's deadliest road accident in the past decade.
Although the cause has yet to be determined, officials believe the bus crashed into the guardrails and caught fire while returning from Istanbul in Turkey to Skopje in North Macedonia.
Those who died trapped in the burning bus -- including four-year-old twins, according to media reports -- were from North Macedonia, prompting the government to declare three days of mourning where the country's flag will be flown at half-mast.
Bulgaria has also declared a day of mourning on Wednesday.
Only four men and three women, including a 16-year-old, survived the crash by breaking one of the windows and jumping to safety, according to officials.
- 'Lost my whole family' -
Some of the victims' families rushed from North Macedonia to Sofia but were denied entry at the hospital where the victims were being treated.
'I only know that my uncle is alive and well. But I know nothing so far about his wife and son... The doctors say that if they're not here they are probably among the dead,' Yousouf Bajazidovski told AFP outside the hospital.
'We ask each other, we ask doctors, we ask the North Macedonia embassy in Sofia, but no one can tell us anything more.'
Another, Ramis Bajazidov, also said relatives 'don't know anything.'
In North Macedonia, one man told the Sloboden Pecat newspaper that 10 of his relatives had died.
'I lost my whole family in the blaze,' he said.
Media in North Macedonia reported that several of the dead were from a Skopje primary school, where all classes were stopped.
The accident happened after midnight on a highway about 40 kilometres (26 miles) from Sofia, near the village of Bosnek.
Many of the dead were between 20 and 30 years old, officials said.
Local media said the bus was registered with the Besa Trans tourist agency, which organises sightseeing and shopping tours to Istanbul.
The tour bus company did not immediately respond when contacted by AFP for comment.
- 'Explosion' -
Images showed the carcass of the charred bus after it broke through the highway's central guardrail.
Bulgaria's interim Prime Minister Stefan Yanev said a probe into the accident had been launched, dismissing suggestions that road conditions were to blame.
Deputy chief prosecutor Borislav Sarafov said they were still investigating 'if it was a technical fault of the vehicle or a human error that caused the crash'.
North Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev told state news agency MIA that he had spoken to one survivor.
'He explained that they were sleeping in the bus when an explosion was heard. They succeeded in breaking one of the windows and saved a few people. Unfortunately, the rest did not succeed,' he said.
Bulgarian national police chief Stanimir Stanev said the bus driver died 'immediately so there was no one able to open the doors'.
- 'Europe stands with you' -
Bulgaria has a history of deadly bus accidents, but Tuesday's disaster is the worst, according to officials.
Twenty Bulgarians died in 2018 when their bus skidded on a wet road and overturned.
EU chief Ursula von der Leyen and Russian President Vladimir Putin sent their condolences to the victims and their relatives.
'In these terrible times, Europe stands in solidarity with you,' von der Leyen said.
Road accidents in Bulgaria have often been attributed to poor road conditions, outdated cars and speeding.
Tuesday's accident occurred on a section of highway with steep gradients and without clear demarcation lines.
Many accidents have taken place there in the past, said road safety activist Diana Rusinova, whose organisation has already complained to authorities about the stretch.
In one of Europe's worst accidents in recent years, 43 people died in 2015 when a bus carrying a pensioners' club collided with a lorry and caught fire in southwest France.
In 2010, 45 people died when a train and a bus collided at a crossing in Ukraine.