Saturday, March 15, 2008

GERDEC, Albania (AP) A massive explosion at an Albanian army ammunition dump near Tirana on Saturday injured more than 150 people, including many children, and the country’s prime minister said he believes there could be many dead.

“It seems the number of the dead is considerable,” Prime Minister Sali Berisha said. He added that information was still incomplete and that he could not confirm a death toll.

Police said that the cause of the explosion was not immediately clear, but that terrorism was not suspected.

The initial blast set off a series of explosions, and ammunition continued to detonate for hours.

Health Minister Nard Ndoka said at least 155 people, including many children, were injured.

Berisha, 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, which is used as a site for destroying excess ammunition, is at Gerdec village, about six miles north of the capital, Tirana. The blast was heard more than 30 miles away, and people fled from nearby villages.

Flights were suspended at Mother Teresa Tirana International Airport for at least 30 minutes.

“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. I do not exclude human error,” he said about Saturday’s blast, but added that the ammunition could have exploded spontaneously because of its age.

Interior Minister Bujar Nishani said 25 people living near the depot had taken shelter in a tunnel used to store tanks, and that army and police armored vehicles were sent to rescue them.

“We are closely following the situation and everything is under control,” Nishani told reporters.

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. Mecaj, who was badly burned in the blast, said that usually about 120 people are working there.

Houses more than a mile away were damaged by the blast, an AP photographer at the scene said.

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