Officials believe the bus crashed into the guardrails and caught fire while returning from Istanbul in Turkey to Skopje in North Macedonia

Bosnek (Bulgaria) (AFP) - A tourist bus carrying North Macedonians caught fire and crashed in Bulgaria on Tuesday, killing 46 people, including a dozen children, 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.

North Macedonia will fly flags at half-mast during three days of mourning, while Bulgaria and Kosovo also declared days of mourning for Wednesday.

Seven people survived the crash by breaking a window and jumping to safety, according to officials.

Bulgarian Interior Minister Boyko Rashov warned of the difficulty of establishing a final death toll, saying: “People are huddled together, their bodies are burnt to ashes inside the bus.”

Bulgaria deadly bus blaze

He said individual identification of the victims would be “very difficult”.

North Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev travelled to Sofia to visit the injured in hospital and called the crash a “tragedy”, in particular because of the young age of many of the victims.

Among the 12 children were a pair of four-year-old twins.

- Families ‘know nothing’ -

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,” Yousouf Bajazidovski told AFP outside the hospital.

“The doctors say that if they’re not here they are probably among the dead.”

Another relative, Ramis Bajazidov, said those waiting “don’t know anything” of the fate of their loved ones.

North Macedonian media reported that several of the dead were from a Skopje primary school, where all classes were stopped.

Relatives of the bus crash victims gathered at Sofia's Pirogov hospital

The accident happened after midnight on a road about 40 kilometres (26 miles) from the capital, Sofia.

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.

North Macedonia’s transport minister told reporters on Tuesday that the bus was not registered for international transport.

The tour bus company did not immediately respond when contacted by AFP.

Images showed the ruins of the charred bus after it broke through the road’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.

The accident occurred at 2:00 am local time

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”.

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.

Interior Minister Boyko Rashkov said the scene of the crash was 'terrifying'

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.