Deaths underline danger of WWII bombs in Germany

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An Allied bomb from World War II killed three German sappers when it exploded as they prepared to defuse it, police said Wednesday, underlining the lethal danger still posed by such ordnance 65 years on.

The deadly blast occurred in the central city of Goettingen late Tuesday, an hour before the three specialists were due to neutralise the 500-kilogramme (1,100-pound) device, which authorities said was likely British.

Builders had discovered it while working on the construction of a sports stadium in a densely populated area.

Another six members of the bomb disposal team were injured, police chief Robert Kruse told a news conference, two of them seriously, but none had life-threatening wounds.

Bombs left over from the war are routinely discovered in Germany, with four found over the past two months in Berlin alone.

"We are deeply shocked by the horrible events last night," Lower Saxony state interior minister Uwe Schuenemann told the same news conference.

"We are mourning in deep sympathy with the families of the three men."

Schuenemann said the men killed, aged 38, 52 and 55, were seasoned ordnance disposal experts: the two oldest had more than 20 years of experience and had defused up to 700 bombs.

Another team had successfully neutralised a bomb at the same site last week.

When the latest bomb was discovered Tuesday, some 7,200 people living in the area were evacuated and the defusing operation was to have begun at about 2045 GMT.

But the bomb inexplicably went off an hour before while the disposal team was at the scene but had not started work.

Kruse said a radius around the explosion site would remain closed off for at least the next two days, leaving neighbouring facilities including a creche shuttered.

Experts were to comb the area Wednesday to ensure there are no further bombs underground before a 24-member special police unit launches an investigation into the cause of the freak explosion.

"This will mean ongoing inconveniences for the public in the interest of their protection but safety must be our highest priority," Kruse said.

The head of the Association of German Explosive Ordnance Specialists, Volker Scherff, said the problem of World War II era bombs would haunt Germany for another 30 to 40 years.

He said there were no reliable estimates for how many bombs still littered the country but noted that because the Allies had targeted major cities and industrial areas in their bombing campaigns, the danger of such accidents was omnipresent.

He said between 400 and 500 people were employed across the country in World War II bomb removal.

"After the war, there was a building boom, and buildings often went up in areas where there were bombs," he told AFP. "Those bombs are still there and when construction work is done today, the ground must always be actively searched for ordnance."

Last month 9,000 residents in the upscale Berlin district of Zehlendorf had to evacuate their homes when a 500-kilogramme bomb was unearthed.

In April, the main airport in Berlin was closed when builders discovered a British bomb.

And in April 2009, Chancellor Angela Merkel had to evacuate her apartment in the Berlin city-centre due to the discovery of an unexploded Soviet bomb.

Berlin authorities believe there are still another 3,000 bombs lurking under the soil in the capital alone.

© 2010 AFP

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