Albanian arms dump blasts kill 5, devastate area
By Benet Koleka
TIRANA (Reuters) - An Albanian army base stocking obsolete munitions for destruction blew up in a chain of massive blasts on Saturday killing at least five people and injuring more than 240.
"This is not the final number of the dead, there might be others," Prime Minister Sali Berisha said in a televised news conference. "The search will resume at daylight because night has fallen and shells are still exploding."
Five people were confirmed dead and some 243 injured, and rescue teams were scouring the devastated scene. Hospitals took in scores of injured suffering burns, concussion, broken limbs, or cuts from flying glass and shrapnel.
Many were hurt as shockwaves from the blast hit nearby villages and cars passing by on the adjacent highway. More than half of the wounded were being treated in hospitals.
The blasts began as workers moved stocks of bombs, bullets and shells stored at the base, a collection point for the arsenal amassed by Albania's Stalinist-era dictatorship.
Dismantling its obsolete arsenal and reforming the army has been a condition for Albania to join NATO. Tirana hopes to be invited to join next month.
Berisha said he believed the country's bid for membership would not be affected by the accident.
"The stock of 100,000 tonnes of 40-50 years old ammunition is one of our most serious problems," Berisha said. "One thing is certain, Albania must get rid of this dangerous inheritance."
WORKING IN GROUPS
Visiting a hospital earlier, Berisha asked a wounded man how many people were inside the base when the explosion occurred.
"We were working in 21 groups made up of three people. I and 14 others managed to get out," he told Berisha.
His office later quoted witnesses as saying the first explosion was not that big, allowing many of the estimated 110 workers on the site to get out.
"Ten minutes passed before the biggest blast and many workers used this time to flee," a press statement said. "The government is trying to identify all the workers one by one, but the situation is difficult."
A Reuters cameraman saw "terrified people were leaving the area on foot along the highway" and cars with broken windows abandoned in the middle of the road.
Albanian TV showed houses torn apart, walls and roofs caved in. One report said unexploded shells, including 50-year-old artillery rounds, were lying scattered around the area.
Amateur video shot five hours later recorded flames still burning amid the crackle of small explosions in a sea of rubble.
Residents of the village of Gerdec had taken shelter in concrete bunkers built by late dictator Enver Hoxha, and some fled from the valley up onto the hillsides above the base.
Spokeswoman Arlinda Causholli said windows and glass doors were shattered at Tirana's brand new airport, a few kilometers from the base.
A U.S.-based company involved in the de-commissioning project said none of its U.S. contractors were at the site at the time of the explosions.
(Writing by Ellie Tzortzi; Editing by Peter Millership)