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Albania minister resigns over deadly blast

Albania's defense minister resigned Monday, two days after explosions at a weapons depot killed at least 15 people and injured hundreds.
Albania Explosion
An Albanian man stands next to ammuntion, some unexploded, in the village of Gerdec on Monday, two days after the area was destroyed by the munitions tragedy.Hektor Pustina / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Albania's defense minister resigned Monday, two days after a series of explosions at a weapons depot killed at least 15 people, injured hundreds and littered the region with shrapnel and unexploded ammunitions.

At least 10 people were still missing Monday in the wake of the explosions Saturday and Sunday in the village of Gerdec, about 6 miles outside the capital. U.S. military explosives experts were helping rescue crews searching for survivors, Defense Ministry spokesman Igli Hasani said.

Rescuers discovered four more bodies Monday, including that of a child. A patient flown to Italy for emergency treatment also died, raising the death toll to 15.

Defense Minister Fatmir Mediu resigned after the main opposition Socialist Party demanded that he and conservative Prime Minister Sali Berisha step down over the blasts.

"Based on what happened and bearing my personal responsibility, I announce that I have handed my resignation to the prime minister," Mediu said, expressing his sadness for the "loss of innocent life"

Berisha had said he could not rule out human error in the explosions _ which he called an accident that occurred as workers were destroying stockpiled ammunition _ but said the ammunition could have exploded spontaneously.

Albania's chief prosecutor, Ina Rama, has launched an investigation. She said investigators were questioning the owner of the company subcontracted to destroy ammunition at the dump.

Near the destroyed depot, villagers briefly blockaded a highway to demand immediate compensation from the government. The blasts destroyed more than 2,300 homes and businesses.

Footage Saturday showed a ball of fire shooting up from the blast site, with shrapnel and shell fragments raining down on homes and cars. Shells were scattered over an area 2,500 acres wide, officials said.

The first explosion was heard as far away as Skopje, the Macedonian capital, some 120 miles away. Authorities evacuated 4,000 people from three villages and the surrounding area as the blasts continued for some 14 hours into Sunday.

Albania has some 100,000 tons of excess ammunition stored in former army depots across the country. NATO countries, particularly the U.S., Canada and Norway, have been helping Albania dispose of excess ammunition and obsolete weaponry.

Authorities say most of the ammunition at Gerdec was Russian and Chinese artillery shells made in the 1960s, when Albania was under communist rule.