Over 20,000 evacauted in Russian arms 'doomsday'

3rd June 2011, Comments 0 comments

More than 20,000 people were evacuated and dozens injured when a fire at a munitions depot in central Russia triggered a succession of explosions and sent a fireball blazing into the sky.

The huge blaze at a military depot storing artillery shells and rockets came after a similar fire late last month, prompting President Dmitry Medvedev to vow that those responsible for the latest "doomsday" accident would face the sack.

Officials battled through the night to put out the blaze at the depot near the village of Pugachyovo in the Volga region of Udmurtia which broke just before midnight, hurling shrapnel into the air and sending people running for their life.

"Anything that could have exploded did," emergencies ministry spokesman Mikhail Turkov told AFP.

Around 60 people sought medical help, including 25 people who were hospitalised, many of them elderly, officials said, adding one man had his finger amputated as a result of the accident.

Two elderly people -- a woman and a man -- died of heart attacks, said Elena Ivanova, a spokeswoman for the regional health ministry in Udmurtia, declining however to link the deaths to the fire or the explosions themselves.

More than 500 personnel were battling the blaze, along with four planes, three helicopters and robotic equipment, officials said, adding more than 40 tonnes of water have been dumped over the blaze as of 0900 GMT.

By that time, authorities said they had the fire under control and many people were beginning to return home as doctors were helping local residents who sustained emotional trauma.

"I thought it was thunder. No, looks like it is not thunder. I then hear the base is going up in the air," local villager Galina Morozova said in televised remarks, adding the force of the blast broke windows.

"You really can't put it into words," another, visibly shaken witness said.

Explosions at military weapons depots are relatively common in Russia and are often linked to ageing equipment and lax enforcement of safety rules.

Some observers have suspected 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.

Late last month, a similar fire at a munitions depot in the nearby region of Bashkortostan triggered explosions that lasted several days.

Officials could not immediately pinpoint the reason for the fire but a spokesman for the FSB security service in Udmurtia told AFP that a terrorist attack was ruled out.

A granite-faced Medvedev told Defence Minister Anatoly Serdyukov to conduct an internal investigation and establish who was responsible for the latest accident in the country's armed forces.

"We are having a doomsday for the second time in a row," the Kremlin chief said in televised remarks.

"Two times is already systematic. Put together proposals as to who and how should be held responsible for this," he said, noting that several officials have already been let go due to similar explosions in the past.

Earlier in the day Udmurtia leader Alexander Volkov met local residents, who were evacuated to the nearby villages, saying the government would compensate them for damage sustained in the fire.

Turkov, the emergencies ministry spokesman, said officials had prepared to evacuate around 28,000 but ended up evacuating slightly over 22,000 people living nearby.

The defence ministry quickly put a lid on the exact quantity of munitions stored at the depot.

"This is confidential information," Moscow-based defense ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov told AFP. Turkov, the emergencies ministry spokesman, said earlier in the day the depot could have contained up to 10,000 rail trucks worth of shells.

The silo also stores a small amount of rockets for Grad rocket launcher systems but they are kept in a concrete shelter and did not explode, said Konashenkov.

© 2011 AFP

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