28,000 evacuated in Russian arms depot fire
Fire raged Friday through a Russian arms depot where tonnes of artillery shells and rockets are stored, causing the evacuation of 28,000 people and leaving dozens injured in the third such recent incident.
Nineteen people were hospitalised and another 23 injured as firefighters used massive trucks and jets to put out the spectacular blaze, which resulted in balls of fire exploding over a nearby village.
"Anything that could have exploded did," however "no one is in critical or serious condition," Volga district emergencies ministry spokesman Mikhail Surkov said by telephone.
Local health officials said two people died of heart attacks during the incident, but no fatalities could be attributed directly to the fire or the explosions themselves, news reports said.
"The evacuation covered about 28,000 people, and we do not expect that figure to grow," Surkov said, predicting that people may start returning to their homes by the end of the day.
The force of the blast broke windows in a nearby village and the fire burnt down a two-storey building where the personnel lived, the defence ministry said.
More than 100 firefighters were battling the blaze, along with water-bombing planes and robotic equipment, officials said.
The incident marked the third time explosions rocked Russia's massive Soviet-era military storage facilities since April 4, when four people were killed when a 40-kilogramme (90-pound) case of explosives went off.
Late last month, a similar fire at a munitions depot in another central Russian region triggered explosions that lasted several days.
No one was killed in the May incident but its causes still remain under investigations.
Analysts explain the frequent arms depot fires to deficient safety measures and a general state of disrepair in the country's underfunded military.
But some also suspect foul play, noting that corruption in the military is rife and such fires can help hide the illicit sale of munitions on the black market.
There were conflicting accounts of what started Friday's fire, with defence officials initially saying it began when a piece of ammunition went off during a loading operation.
But another military source told RIA Novosti the fire may have been sparked by an electrical short circuit.
News reports said the silo stored some 100,000 tonnes of shells and other military equipment in all, including parts of Grad rocket systems.
"The rockets did not explode. They are in a concrete shelter up to 70 centimetres (28 inches) thick," Deputy Defence Minister Dmitry Bulgakov told news agency after inspecting the area from a helicopter.
The defence ministry had said earlier that the depot contained only "classic artillery shells".
The depot, which housed old ammunition which was due to be decommissioned, contained explosives equivalent to 58 tonnes of TNT, Russian television reported.
The incident occurred near the city of Izhevsk in the Volga region of Udmurtia, requiring the evacuation of people by buses to nearby villages at a radius of 30 to 60 kilometres, officials said.
© 2011 AFP