At least 45 people have died in a bus crash in Bulgaria early on Tuesday, officials said.
The accident happened around 2 am on a motorway 40 kilometres south of the capital Sofia as the bus, which was registered in North Macedonia, travelled from Istanbul to Skopje.
"Seven passengers were rescued" and evacuated to a hospital in the capital, the head of the country's disaster control service Nikolay Nikolov said. They were two women and five men.
Twelve of those who died in the crash were under 18 and five were children.
"The survivors are traumatised, they have lost relatives, children. They jumped out of windows," said Maya Arguirova, head of the burns treatment centre where they were transported.
Photos taken shortly after the crash showed the bus engulfed in flames with plumes of thick, black smoke rising from the scene.
Bulgaria's caretaker prime minister Stefan Yanev visited the site of the crash and told reporters it was “a huge tragedy.”
“I take this opportunity to send my condolences to the relatives of the victims,” Yanev said. “Let’s hope we learn lessons from this tragic incident and we can prevent such incidents in the future.”
The cause of the accident could not be determined at this stage.
"The only thing that is clear is that the bus had Macedonian number plates," added Yanev.
"This is a tragedy," said Prime Minister of North Macedonia Zoran Zaev said in an interview with Nova TV.
He also told Bulgarian television channel bTV that he had spoken to one of the bus survivors.
“One of the passengers told me that he was asleep and woke up from an explosion,” he said, adding that the authorities will gather information that is “important for the families of the dead and the survivors.”
Bulgarian news agency Novinite reported representatives from North Macedonia’s embassy visited a hospital where some of the victims were taken.
In 2019, Bulgaria, an EU 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.
The road had been recently renovated with funds from the EU, but this section had very steep passages, without dividing lines, according to a road safety association, which had previously reported the problem to the authorities.
This was the most serious coach accident in Bulgaria. The last dates back to August 2018 when 20 tourists were killed when a vehicle left the road in torrential rain, in a mountainous region north of Sofia.