More than 5,000 blasts an hour shake Ukraine

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The Independent Online

Thousands of Ukrainians were waiting for permission to return to their homes yesterday after ammunition explosions at a military depot showered parts of south-eastern Ukraine with shells and shrapnel for three days.

Thousands of Ukrainians were waiting for permission to return to their homes yesterday after ammunition explosions at a military depot showered parts of south-eastern Ukraine with shells and shrapnel for three days.

At the height of the catastrophe, more than 5,000 blasts an hour were recorded, an average of more than one a second. Specially equipped firefighters were called in to put out the flames, while more than 7,000 people were escorted from surrounding villages. The blasts, which began on Thursday, killed at least one person outright and injured four. Another four people died later from heart problems aggravated by the stress of the disaster.

The explosions at the sprawling arsenal near Melitopol, 600km (370 miles) south-east of Kiev, began to tail off significantly yesterday. By Saturday morning, one explosion was registered about every 30 minutes. But even then, columns of people filled the roads waiting to return to their homes. No one, however, was allowed beyond the police checkpoints.

Inside the 20km (12mile) exclusion zone, the roads and fields were deserted. Despite sunny blue skies that would typically bring people outside, only an occasional vehicle carrying troops or police was visible. The police checkpoints marked the only sign of life.

A man, who identified himself only as Ghennadiy, said that after hearing a "loud thunder sound" on Thursday followed by more blasts, he fled with his family. As they left a hamlet near the depot, Ghennadiy said he saw "groups of soldiers and people running from the direction of the explosion".

Ukraine's Defence Minister, Yevheniy Marchuk, said on Friday that preliminary information pointed to human error as the cause. Officials said anything from a smouldering cigarette to improper placement of the munitions might be to blame.

The Prime Minister, Viktor Yanukovych, and Mr Marchuk arrived in the area on Saturday to investigate the damage.

Severe accidents at arsenals in the former Soviet Union are not uncommon. A 2002 fire at a naval arsenal near Vladivostok, the home of Russia's Pacific Fleet, sent shells flying, and blasts at another Far East naval arsenal a year later injured 13 people.

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