Albanian officials say at least four people have been killed and over 200 injured, including many children in a series of powerful explosions that rocked an army base on the outskirts of the capital Tirana late Saturday. Stefan Bos reports for VOA that the explosions at a munitions depot has underscored concerns over huge quantities of Stalinist-era weapons in the country.
Deadly blasts at an army base continued to shake Tirana. Television footage showed black smoke billowing from what appeared to be destroyed buildings.
Witnesses said the explosions on the outskirts of the capital were so powerful that many windows of the terminal building at the city's airport were destroyed.
The first explosion was so strong that was even heard in the neighboring country of Macedonia, some 150 kilometers away.
Albania's Prime Minister Sali Berisha warned that the number of casualties could rise.
There were some angry scenes with residents living nearby desperately seeking answers as police tried to protect the area. Officials said that the explosions apparently began while three teams were dismantling munitions stored at the base. Police officials ruled out terrorism as the cause of the blasts.
Albania has to dismantle its obsolete Stalinist-era arsenal and modernize its armed forces to qualify for an invitation to join the western military alliance NATO next month. There have also been attempts to reduce the numbers of weapons in the country, a left-over of decades of dictatorship under late leader Enver Hoxha.
At least over 100 people were reportedly at the base when the blasts occured, but it was unclear whether weapon experts of a U.S. company contracted by NATO were at the site.
The United States embassy in Tirana could not immediately confirm that there were Americans present at the depot.
In a statement the embassy said it noted with shock and concern the reports of what it called the tragic accident in the military depot near Gërdec,some 10 kilometers north of Tirana.
There were survivors however, including women and children covered with blood who rushed to hospitals. Medical personnel appealed for local people to donate blood to help the victims. Albania is an impoverished country, and its hospitals can hardly cope with emergencies, although church groups have been supporting improvement of outdated medical facilities.
Neighboring countries,including Italy are sending medical personnel and equipment to Tirana shortly after the incident.
The United Stated and France have also offered assistance.