TIRANA (AFP) – Powerful explosions rocked an army munitions depot 12 kilometres (eight miles) north of the capital Tirana on Saturday, killing a “considerable” number of people and injuring at least 155, mostly civilians.
“The number of dead is considerable,” Albanian Prime Minister Sali Berisha told reporters, as the blasts, continued to shake the city.
At least three units totalling some 60 soldiers were deployed at the scene at the time, Berisha’s spokeswoman Juela Mecani said.
However, “I cannot estimate the number” of the victims, she added.
Many of the casualties seen arriving at local hospitals for treatment were women and children covered with blood, and one doctor appealed for local people to donate blood to help the casualties.
The blasts, which began at around midday (1100 GMT) and continued at intervals for several hours, blew in all the windows of the terminal building at the city’s airport, just over a kilometre from the base near the town of Vora.
The initial explosion was so loud it was heard in neighbouring Macedonia, 150 kilometres away.
Berisha said “special army units with armoured vehicles went to the scene of the incident in a bid to rescue those who were working there.”
Military experts were disposing of shells at the time of the first explosion. They were assisted by employees of a US company contracted by NATO to help the Albanian army get rid of surplus munitions.
The US embassy in Tirana, contacted by telephone, was unable to confirm that there were foreigners present at the depot.
Earlier Berisha told journalists that the situation was “very serious and very alarming,” adding that there were thought to be “many injured.”
“At least 155 people were hospitalised, 70 at the hospital in Durres (west from Tirana), 70 at the military hospital in Tirana and 15 in a civilian hospital in Tirana,” Albanian Health Minister Nard Ndoka told reporters.
“Those injured who are hospitalised came from the neighbouring villages, because ambulances have not yet managed to approach the site of the incident as the explosions were still going on,” he said.
Explosions were still occurring at 1430 GMT, an AFP reporter said.
Most of the casualties arriving at Tirana’s military hospital were civilians being brought in by a stream of ambulances, while others came in private cars.
Many were women and children covered with blood.
A doctor at the hospital compared the flood of people with “a toll of war.”
“The situation is serious,” he said, urging citizens to donate blood, “which could run short.”
“We have sent defence ministry helicopters and we have begun to evacuate the residents of villages neighbouring the depot,” Berisha said.
The depot is located outside Vora, next to the village of Gerdec.
The airport was immediately closed and all flights cancelled until further notice.
The blasts were so powerful that they were heard in neighbouring Macedonia, prompting dozens of citizens to alert the police there, believing the explosions were in the country itself, authorities in Skopje said.
In the western part of Macedonia, windows were shattered at a number of houses, police spokesman Ivo Kotevski told AFP.
“A lot of people reported very strong blasts to us, but not a single incident was registered” in Macedonia, Kotevski added.