Shells still exploding at Russian arms depot

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Shells were still exploding Saturday at a Russian munitions store three days after it caught fire, forcing the evacuation of thousands of residents, officials said.

"The intensity of the explosions has gone down from around 40 to four-five per minute," the emergency ministry said Saturday, adding that more than 1,200 firefighters were at the scene in Udmurtia in the Volga region.

"The fire at the depot is localised and still burning at the centre. Some shells are still exploding," regional emergency ministry spokesman Mikhail Turkov told AFP.

The emergency ministry is using remotely controlled robots, water-bombing planes and armoured vehicles to fight the fire, since the explosions made it too dangerous for fire engines, Turkov said.

"We cannot send living people in fire engines in there."

More than 20,000 residents were evacuated after the defence ministry depot caught fire around midnight on Thursday and more than 70 were treated for wounds, mainly cuts and grazes from broken glass and shrapnel.

The fire came just over a week after a munitions depot in the nearby region of Bashkortostan caught fire on May 26, triggering explosions that lasted several days.

The accidents highlighted the poor security of Russia's vast stores of ageing munitions and prompted President Dmitry Medvedev to call the fires "Doomsday" events.

On Friday, Medvedev called for heads to roll at the defence ministry at a televised meeting with defence chief Anatoly Serdyukov.

"The defence ministry is disarming by blowing sky high," Kommersant daily said in a headline Saturday, criticising the defence ministry for using conscripts to handle explosives without proper training or protection.

"What happened at the Number 102 arsenal is total lawlessness and disorganisation," a source familiar with the depot told Kommersant.

"Soldiers were being exploited. They carried around the shells and gunpowder in zinc boxes without any special equipment... There was practically no training and the soldiers were carrying the shells around even at night."

A total of 76 people required medical treatment and 35 were hospitalised, five of whom have since gone home, the Udmurtia health ministry said in a statement on Saturday.

On Saturday, a highway close to the depot remained closed, but residents were beginning to return home, the emergency ministry said.

© 2011 AFP

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