East London - South Africa : The World Students Society mourns as 21 students die mysteriously in a  South African tavern. Deceased include eight girls, 13 boys all of whom are under 18.

At least 21 teenagers, the youngest possible just 13, died at the weekend after a night out at a township tavern in South Africa, in a tragedy whose cause remains unclear.

Many are thought to have been students celebrating the end of their high-school exams on Saturday night, provincial officials said.

There were no visible wounds on the bodies. Officials have ruled out a stampede as a possible cause and said autopsies would determine if  the deaths could be linked to poisoning.

Crowds of people, including parents whose children were missing, gathered on Sunday outside the tavern where the tragedy happened in the city of East London, while mortuary vehicles collected the bodies, an AFP correspondent saw.

Senior government officials rushed to the southern city. They included nationol Police Minister Bheke Clele, who broke down in tears after emerging from a morgue where the bodies were being stored.

''It's a terrible scene,'' he told reporters. ''They are pretty young. When you're told that they are 13 years, 14 years and you go there and you see them. It breaks [you].''

The provincial government of Eastern Cape said eight girls and 13 boys had died. Seventeen were found dead outside the tavern. The rest died in hospital.

Drinking is permitted for over-18s in township taverns, commonly known as shebeens, which are often situated cheek by jowl with family homes or, in some cases, inside the homes themselves.

But safety regulations and drinking - age laws are not always enforced.

''We have a child that was there, who passed away on the scene,'' said the parents of a 17-year-old boy. ''This child, we were not thinking was going to die this way.

This was a humble child, respectful,'' said grieving mother Ntombizonke Mgangala, standing next to her husband outside the morgue.

President Cyril Ramaphosa, who is attending the G7 summit in Germany, sent his condolences.

He voiced concerns ''about the reported circumstances under which such young people were gathered at a venue which, on the face of it, should be off-limits to persons under the age of 18''. [AFP]


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