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Albanian arms dump blasts kill 5, devastate area

15/03/2008 - 23:50

By Benet Koleka

TIRANA (Reuters) - An Albanian army base stocking obsoletemunitions for destruction blew up in a chain of massive blastson Saturday killing at least five people and injuring more than240.

"This is not the final number of the dead, there might beothers," Prime Minister Sali Berisha said in a televised newsconference. "The search will resume at daylight because nighthas fallen and shells are still exploding."

Five people were confirmed dead and some 243 injured, andrescue teams were scouring the devastated scene. Hospitals tookin scores of injured suffering burns, concussion, broken limbs,or cuts from flying glass and shrapnel.

Many were hurt as shockwaves from the blast hit nearbyvillages and cars passing by on the adjacent highway. More thanhalf of the wounded were being treated in hospitals.

The blasts began as workers moved stocks of bombs, bulletsand shells stored at the base, a collection point for thearsenal amassed by Albania's Stalinist-era dictatorship.

Dismantling its obsolete arsenal and reforming the army hasbeen a condition for Albania to join NATO. Tirana hopes to beinvited to join next month.

Berisha said he believed the country's bid for membershipwould not be affected by the accident.

"The stock of 100,000 tonnes of 40-50 years old ammunitionis one of our most serious problems," Berisha said. "One thingis certain, Albania must get rid of this dangerousinheritance."

WORKING IN GROUPS

Visiting a hospital earlier, Berisha asked a wounded manhow many people were inside the base when the explosionoccurred.

"We were working in 21 groups made up of three people. Iand 14 others managed to get out," he told Berisha.

His office later quoted witnesses as saying the firstexplosion was not that big, allowing many of the estimated 110workers on the site to get out.

"Ten minutes passed before the biggest blast and manyworkers used this time to flee," a press statement said. "Thegovernment is trying to identify all the workers one by one,but the situation is difficult."

A Reuters cameraman saw "terrified people were leaving thearea on foot along the highway" and cars with broken windowsabandoned in the middle of the road.

Albanian TV showed houses torn apart, walls and roofs cavedin. One report said unexploded shells, including 50-year-oldartillery rounds, were lying scattered around the area.

Amateur video shot five hours later recorded flames stillburning amid the crackle of small explosions in a sea ofrubble.

Residents of the village of Gerdec had taken shelter inconcrete bunkers built by late dictator Enver Hoxha, and somefled from the valley up onto the hillsides above the base.

Spokeswoman Arlinda Causholli said windows and glass doorswere shattered at Tirana's brand new airport, a few kilometresfrom the base.

A U.S.-based company involved in the de-commissioningproject said none of its U.S. contractors were at the site atthe time of the explosions.

(Writing by Ellie Tzortzi; Editing by Peter Millership)


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