TIRANA, Albania — Troops and police cordoned off a smoldering army depot north of the capital as crews searched Sunday for workers missing following a chain of explosions that killed at least nine people and injured hundreds.
Nine bodies have been found and another nine workers and villagers remained missing Sunday, authorities said. Health Minister Nard Ndoka said nearly 300 people were injured, including children, and more than 50 remained hospitalized. Eight are in serious condition and are to be transported to Italy for treatment.
Rescuers found three charred bodies in the army depot and the body of a woman in a nearby house Sunday. U.S. soldiers were helping in the rescue effort, and Danish and Norwegian troops also were expected.
Prime Minister Sali Berisha said the explosions in the village of Gerdec, about 6 miles north of Tirana, were an accident: blasts triggered during work to destroy excess ammunition stockpiled during Albania’s communist past.
The chain of explosions started midday Saturday and continued until early Sunday, severely hampering rescue efforts. Footage showed a ball of fire shooting up from the site, with shrapnel and shell fragments raining down on homes and cars.
Berisha said the blast destroyed more than 2,000 homes and businesses. Gerdec was declared an emergency zone, and Berisha promised relief for villagers who lost their homes.
“As soon as the damage is fully assessed, the government will commit all its resources to quickly react and rebuild the totally destroyed zone,” he said.
The first blast — which left a massive crater at the depot — blew out doors and windows at Tirana’s international airport and was heard as far away as Skopje, the Macedonian capital, some 120 miles away.
The explosion also damaged a major electricity transmission point, leaving the area without power.
Authorities evacuated 4,000 people from three villages and the surrounding area, with houses more than a mile away sustaining damage and the chain of explosions continuing for some 14 hours until 2 a.m.
“We have isolated the area but our fear is that the ammunition could be reactivated because we don’t know how much has exploded,” Defense Minister Fatmir Mediu said.
“The other fear is that the ground is so hot that something could be suddenly reactivated.”
On Sunday, troops and police cordoned off the still-smoldering depot as army engineers prepared to go into the heart of the blasts as the search for missing workers continued.
Berisha said he did not believe the explosion would affect Albania’s prospects of being invited to join NATO next month.
Berisha said he could not rule out human error, but added that ammunition stored at the depot could have exploded spontaneously because of its age.
Albania has some 100,000 tons of excess ammunition stored in former army depots across the country, the defense minister said.
NATO countries, particularly the United States, Canada and Norway, have been helping Albania destroy excess ammunition and obsolete weaponry. A company hired to destroy excess ammunition has destroyed about 6,000-7,000 tons of ammunition in the past year.
Most of the ammunition at Gerdec was Russian and Chinese artillery shells made in the 1960s, when Albania was under communist rule, authorities said.
Accidents have occurred at ammunition dumps in Albania in the past. Three years ago, explosions at army weapon depots in southern Albania killed an army officer and injured four others.
Most of those injured Saturday suffered burns and psychological shock but at least two were in serious condition. Five people — including two young girls with severe burns and injuries — were sent to neighboring Greece for treatment.
Neighboring Kosovo, Greece and Macedonia sent blood Sunday, with Macedonian Foreign Minister Antonio Milososki flying to Tirana to offer assistance and donating blood himself.
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