Scores of civilians and US military staff feared dead as huge Albanian arms dump explodes

Scores of people, including US military staff, are feared to have died after a Soviet-era munitions dump exploded at an Albanian army base yesterday. The blast injured more than 240 people, including many children – and the country's Prime Minister, Sali Berisha, said he believed the death toll could be considerable.

The initial blast at the depot at Gerdec village, about six miles north of the capital, Tirana, set off a series of explosions, and ammunition continued to detonate for hours. The blast was felt 12 miles away and was heard at a distance of more than 30 miles. Many of the injured are civilians hurt by the enormous shockwaves that hit nearby villages and cars passing by on a nearby highway. Terrorism is not suspected.

A Reuters cameraman at the scene said: "Terrified people are leaving the area on foot along the highway, mainly women and children." He described plumes of smoke and a series of explosions from the base.

"Cars with broken windows have been abandoned on the highway," he added. Television pictures showed houses torn apart, their walls and roofs caved in. Unexploded shells were scattered round the area.

The explosions seemed to have begun when Albanian and US teams were moving obsolete munitions stored at the base, including 50-year-old artillery shells. Mr Berisha said: "The problem of ammunition in Albania is one of the gravest and a continuous threat. There is a colossal, a crazy amount of it since 1945." The base is a central collection point for the arsenal amassed by Albania's Stalinist-era dictatorship.

Interior Minister Bujar Nishani said: "The most dangerous area, where it is foreseen there will be dead, is the explosion site where no one has been able to go yet." He added that army and police forces were some 50 meters from the site.

Five bodies have been found so far, but officials said they feared the worst for the three teams, each of 21 people, working there at the time. Several were reportedly US citizens.

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