Turkmenistan blast blamed on fireworks may have killed several hundred

 

It was just the harmless detonation of some fireworks, the authorities in Turkmenistan insisted, and there were no casualties. But reports on opposition websites and eyewitness testimony suggest that a series of explosions last week at an arms depot in the isolated Central Asian country could have killed dozens of people and injured hundreds.

Already the secretive Turkmen government has been forced to admit that the blasts last Thursday near Abadan were indeed caused by munitions. Officials now say that 15 people were killed, 13 of them civilians. But one opposition website claims that there were more than 1,300 people injured. Unofficial reports of the number of deaths range from 30 to several hundred.

One opposition website quotes an Abadan resident claiming that more than 50 soldiers guarding the depot were killed instantly. Other reports from residents who fled the town say that shells hit the local hospital and a school building, killing many children.

It is impossible to verify the information trickling out from Abadan but it is clear the official account does not tell the full story. It is not known how the fire started at the military depot, but grainy videos from survivors show a huge plume of smoke coming from the building and artillery shells flying out in all directions.

The day after the blast, President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov made no mention of the accident. Turkmen diplomats said the blasts had been caused by fireworks exploding in the summer heat.

Turkmenistan was ruled for more than a decade by Saparmurat Niyazov, a dictator who called himself Turkmenbashi, or "Leader of the Turkmen".

Mr Berdymukhammedov, a former dentist, came to power after Mr Niyazov's death in late 2006. Media freedom is non-existent and internet access severely limited in the country.

The president appeared to betray just how serious the damage to Abadan is by a promise to build a "new town" in place of the ruined buildings.

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