Uzbekistan arms depot explosions leave three dead

Thursday, July 10, 2008

An arms depot in Uzbekistan has experienced a series of explosions today after a fire at a military base near the city of Kagan, killing at least three people. The base dates back to Soviet times.

The fire broke out late Wednesday. Although information about the accident comes from officials, one official at Uzbekistan's Emergency Situations Ministry denied the report. Local media did not report the fire for at least twelve hours after it ignited, and one local resident who spoke with the Associated Press refused to be identified for fear of retribution by the authorities. The resident was quoted as saying, "we were woken up in the middle of the night and everybody came out onto the street."

Independent Russian website reports that around 20 houses, a hospital, a railway station and a helicopter base have been destroyed, and 21 people have been injured by the blasts. The biggest explosions blew out windows in Bukhara, which is 7 miles away.

The military has stopped people returning for their belongings and has placed them in schools for now. The evacuations were conducted by soldiers who are also working to quell the flames.

It is thought that the fire started in the helicopter base and, despite efforts by soldiers, it then spread to the supplies of shells. The risk of more blasts is hampering investigatory efforts, but it is reported by a local official that the fire has been extinguished.

"I was working on my laptop when I heard a massive explosion which broke the windows. Then the sky lit up like at dawn," said one resident. The explosions started three hours after the fire initially broke out.

Kagan has a population of 50,000 and is an important part of the local rail network. The town's phone lines have become inoperative due to the blasts, and rail services from the capital, Tashkent, have been canceled. The military currently has the town sealed off.

Defense Minister Ruslan Mirzayev traveled to the site. The base was used to store unused munitions after the Soviet-Afghan War.