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Mar 16, 2008 at 01:42pm IST

Albania ammunition dump blast kills 5, injures 243

Tirana (Albania): A massive explosion at an Albanian army ammunition dump near Tirana killed at least five people and injured 243, including many children, authorities said. The Prime Minister said he feared there could be many dead.

The initial blast on Saturday at the depot at Gerdec village, about 10 kilometers (six miles) north of the capital, Tirana, set off a series of explosions and ammunition continued to detonate into the night.

The blast was heard as far away as the Macedonian capital of Skopje, a distance of 190 kilometers (120 miles), and prompted a brief suspension of flights at Tirana's nearby international airport, which was slightly damaged.

DAMAGE CONTROL: Albanian army and police block a road as fire is seen at the site of a powerful explosion in Gerdec.

Prime Minister Sali Berisha said during a late night news conference that the death toll stood at five, but that the number was likely to increase. He said 243 people had been registered as injured.

By Saturday night, 142 remained hospitalized, and 12 of them were in serious condition. Health Minister Nard Ndoka said earlier that many of the injured were children.

''It seems the number of the dead is considerable,'' Berisha had said earlier in the day.

Authorities evacuated 4,000 people from three villages and the surrounding area using armored personnel carriers, Berisha said. By the time the search and rescue operation was called off on Saturday night, rescue crews had managed to get within 10 meters of the blast site, he said, adding that the operation would resume early Sunday morning.

The destruction of ammunition at the dump was being carried out by an Albanian company that had been subcontracted by Southern Ammunition Company Inc of Loris, South Carolina, a US company, Berisha said, adding that there had been no foreign citizens in the area.

In the past year, about 6,000-7,000 tons of ammunition has been destroyed.

Berisha described the blasts as an accident.

Army and police forces resumed search-and-rescue operations early morning Sunday.

Footage from Albanian television showed a massive ball of fire shooting up from the site, while shrapnel and shell fragments rained down on homes and vehicles. Houses more than two kilometers (a mile) away were damaged by the blast.

Berisha said the initial blast caused a massive crater at the site.

The continuous explosions hampered rescue efforts, and authorities were unable to get to the site of the main blast for hours. The explosion also damaged a major electricity transmission point, leaving the area without power, authorities said.

Explosions continued for some 14 hours until 2 am. (0100 GMT).

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Berisha, a cardiologist, visited victims in hospitals in Tirana and said most of the injured were suffering from burns and psychological shock.

Italy and Greece took 11 and eight injured persons respectively to be treated at their hospitals.

The health minister said Albania had received offers of assistance from Italy, Greece, Switzerland and many other countries to treat the injured. Berisha said some of the more seriously injured might be airlifted to one of those countries if their situation allowed.

Italy was sending a plane carrying medical personnel and equipment in response to an Albanian request. France and the United States have offered help and support.

In neighboring Kosovo, where most of the population is ethnic Albanian, hundreds of people lined up at a Pristina hospital to give blood, and NATO-led peacekeepers were sending blood reserves by helicopters, officials said.

In Skopje, Macedonians donated blood; Macedonian Foreign Minister Antonio Milososki flew to Tirana to offer assistance, and he donated blood himself.

Greek Foreign Minister Dora Bakoyannis said she had expressed Greece's solidarity and intention to help.

Berisha's office issued a statement quoting witnesses as saying that 110 people had been working at the dump at the time of the explosion. It said they reported that there had been a delay of about 10 minutes between the initial blast and the explosions that followed, and that many of the workers had managed to run away.

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 Defense Minister Fatmir Mediu.

NATO countries, and particularly the United States, Canada and Norway, have been helping with funding for Albania to destroy excess ammunition and obsolete weaponry.

''The problem of ammunition in Albania is one of the gravest, and a continuous threat,'' Berisha said. ''There is a colossal, a crazy amount of them since 1945 until now.''

He said he did not exclude human error in Saturday's blast, but added that the ammunition could have exploded spontaneously because of its age.

Albin Mecaj, 22, who works at the depot, told The Associated Press by telephone that about 80 people had been working on destroying ammunition at the time of the explosion. Mecaj, who was badly burned in the blast, said about 120 people usually work at the depot.

Accidents have occurred at ammunition dumps in Albania in the past, although Saturday's was by far the worst. Three years ago explosions at army weapon depots in southern Albania killed an army officer and injured four others.

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