By Richard Lough
NAIROBI (Reuters) - Kenya pledged to reopen its main airport to all international flights on Thursday night in a bid to reassure travelers that east Africa's transport hub could recover quickly from a fire that left the arrivals terminal a smoldering, blackened shell.
Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, sub-Saharan Africa's fourth busiest airport, was forced to close on Wednesday after a fire swept through the international arrivals building early in the morning.
Investigators said it was too early to ascertain the cause of the fire but had ruled out terrorism. A local FBI unit was assisting with the investigations.
Wednesday was the 15th anniversary of an attack by Islamist militants on the U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, the commercial capital of neighboring Tanzania.
On Thursday morning, the airport was only being used for domestic flights at a different terminal and limited international flights by Kenya Airways. Emirates, British Airways, Etihad, South African Airways, Ethiopian airlines and Rwanda Air were all forced to cancel their flights for a second day, tour operators said.
"The airport will be open for all other flights as from midnight on Thursday," said Michael Kamau, cabinet secretary for transport.
He said a makeshift terminal would be built within days that could handle 1.5 million passengers. White tents erected outside the domestic flights terminal were trying to cope with international travelers in the meantime.
South African Airways said it would resume its daily flights to Nairobi as of Friday.
Kenyan media criticized the authorities for being too slow to respond to the fire, and on Thursday reports emerged of emergency services looting the airport while it was burning.
Four different witnesses told Reuters TV on Thursday they saw first responders - at that point mainly police - breaking into ATMs inside the terminal and grabbing wads of money. At least four ATMs were completely devastated by the fire.
A police officer who is normally based at the airport told Reuters he saw emergency responders taking money from a foreign exchange bureau. Local KTN station showed footage of charred bank notes strewn outside the burning building.
Kenya's Inspector General of Police David Kimaiyo told Reuters he had not received any reports of looting, however.
"Not yet, there is no reported case of looting of ATMs at the airport, some of them were in fact intact," Kimaiyo said.
EXPORTERS, TRAVELLERS STRUGGLE
In addition to the international arrivals building, Reuters TV reported considerable damage to the international departures terminal 50 meters away. The tunnel that connects the international arrivals and departures section was obstructed by a partially collapsed roof and sodden flooring.
"What is key is the speed at which this is normalized. If they can pull a rabbit out of the hat and get international flights moving they may bail themselves out," said Aly Khan Satchu, a Nairobi-based analyst.
"If this drags on it's going to damage Nairobi's regional hub status."
The fire is a blow to Kenya at the start of the peak tourism season. The horticulture industry, another major foreign exchange earner for east Africa's biggest economy, was also preparing for losses.
"We still haven't flown any produce out. We are waiting to see what rolls out today," Jane Ngige, chief executive officer of exporters association Kenya Flower Council, told Reuters.
One Kenya Airports Authority official told Reuters the fire had put pressure on builders to complete construction of a new international arrivals terminal.
"We might just have to fast-track the new terminal. But there's still a lot to be done internally. The new unit won't be ready for another year," he said, asking not to be named because he was not authorized to talk to the media.
The airport, which is already operating at more than twice its 2.5 million passenger capacity, is expected to handle around 15 million passengers once the new terminal opens, he said.
The government's concerns about its image were reflected in the comments of some passengers who said they would be looking for alternative routes.
"I think I'll skip this route for a wee while," said 39-year-old Terence Forster, a Tanzania-based Briton whose flight home was delayed.
"It's been my main transit route for a while. But not any more. I can't see anything happening soon to get this airport up and running normally," he said.
(Additional reporting by Ben Makori, Duncan Miriri, Kevin Mwanza and James Macharia in Nairobi and Jon Herskovitz in Johannesburg; Writing by Drazen Jorgic and James Macharia; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)