A massive explosion at an Albanian army ammunition dump near Tirana today killed at least four people and injured more than 170, including many children. The country’s prime minister said he feared there could be many dead.
The initial blast at the depot at Gerdec village, about six miles north of the capital, Tirana, set off a series of explosions, and ammunition continued to detonate for hours. Health Minister Nard Ndoka said about 170 people, including many children, had been injured.
Police said the cause of the explosion was not immediately clear, but terrorism was not suspected.
The office of Prime Minister Sali Berisha said four people had been found dead near the site of the explosion. The blast was heard more than 30 miles away, and people fled from nearby villages. The explosion prompted authorities to suspend flights for at least 30 minutes at Mother Teresa Tirana International Airport.
Interior Minister Bujar Nishani said authorities evacuated the surrounding area and explosives experts would clear the area of any remaining ammunition in the next few days.
Houses in the area were searched, and no bodies were found there, Mr Nishani said.
“The most dangerous area, where it is foreseen there will be dead, is the explosion site where none has been able to go yet,” said Mr Nishani, adding that army and police forces were some 50 yards from the site.
Mr Berisha said that “it seems the number of the dead is considerable.” He added that information was still incomplete.
The prime minister, a cardiologist, visited victims in hospitals in Tirana and said at least four of those injured were in serious condition. He said most of the injured were suffering from burns and psychological shock.
The army depot is used as a location to destroy excess ammunition.
Albania has some 100,000 tons of excess ammunition stored in former army depots across the country, according to Defence Minister Fatmir Mediu. He has said the country needs at least £39 million to destroy it.
Nato countries, and particularly the US, Canada and Norway, have been helping with funding for Albania to destroy excess ammunition and obsolete weaponry.
Albania hopes to be invited to join Nato at the alliance’s summit in Bucharest, Romania, early next month.
“The problem of ammunition in Albania is one of the gravest and a continuous threat,” Mr Berisha said. “There is a colossal, a crazy amount of it since 1945 until now. I do not exclude human error,” he said about the blast, but added that the ammunition could have exploded of its own accord because of its age.
President Bamir Topi, speaking on Albanian television, called for calm, to avoid “panic and chaos.”
Albin Mecaj, 22, who works at the depot, told the AP by telephone that about 80 people had been working on destroying ammunition at the time of the explosion. Mr Mecaj, who was badly burned in the blast, said about 120 people are usually working at the depot.
Houses more than a mile)away were damaged by the blast. The surrounding area had no power supply after the explosion, and police shut down the main road between Tirana and the seaside town of Durres, 20 miles west of Tirana.
Mr Nishani said 25 people living near the depot had taken shelter in a tunnel used to store tanks, and that army and police armoured vehicles were sent to rescue them.
“We are closely following the situation and everything is under control,” Nishani told reporters.