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After catastrophic blasts, smoke covers Albanian village in rubbles

Picture taken on March 16, 2008 shows destroyed houses in the village of Gerdec, 12 km from the capital Tirana, a day after a blast occured at an Albanian army demolition facility. Some 400 Albanian troops searched through rubble on March 16, 2008 for survivors of a huge munitions blast that razed an army base, killing at least nine people and injuring 243. In nearby Gerdec, several homes stood only as skeletons, the bricks around their concrete pillars shattered and the red roof tiles blown all over the hillside. The shockwave uprooted shrubs and cut olive trees down to stumps. Photo courtesy AFP.
by Staff Writers
Gerdec, Albania (AFP) March 16, 2008
A pall of thick black smoke hung over the village of Gerdec on Sunday, reduced to rubble by deadly explosions at a nearby military depot, killing seven people and leaving more than 240 injured.

Although the booming of blasts from the depot could still be heard, several villagers braved the dangers to return to home only to find their houses razed to the ground and fire still smouldering in the yards.

The corpses of dead cattle were strewn everywhere while trees had been blown apart by the detonations.

The whole area around the site of the blasts was covered with unexploded shells and scattered metal fragments stuck out from the ground amid the rubble of family homes and gardens.

An eery silence prevailed, broken only by the sound of sporadic explosions that could be heard almost 24 hours after the first blast rocked the site.

Security forces -- at least 500 policemen and about 1,000 special military units -- had cordoned off the area in a bid to prevent villagers and journalists from wandering around, trying to avoid possible incidents.

"The whole area is mined and the danger is quite high," one of the villagers, Sabri, told AFP.

For Sabri and his friends, Saturday's blast was an "Albanian Hiroshima."

Rescuers, backed by security forces, have relentlessly been combing the area for victims while military helicopters overflew the village.

"Special forces are to make safe the site and search for the victims in the ruins of the depot," Albania's Interior Minister Bujar Nishani said.

The latest interior ministry toll put the number of dead at seven, while 243 people were injured - 12 seriously - and 10 were reported missing.

Hysen Deliu has been looking for his 20-year-old daughter since last night. With tears in his eyes, visibly shaken, he moved on to another pile of rubble.

"It looks like war, nothing has remained," 69-year-old Deliu said, his hands trembling.

Desperately, he looked around the wreckage of his house, wondering whether his daughter stayed at home on Saturday or went to work in this "factory of death," where she had found job as the family needed money.

"I don't know whether she went there or stayed at home," Deliu endlessly repeated in a stifled voice.

Military experts were disposing of shells at the time of the first blast on Saturday, assisted by employees of a US company contracted by NATO to help the Albanian army get rid of surplus munitions dating from the communist era.

"That was a blood money, working hours in the depot were long and people were paid less than 100 euros (154 dollars), without any insurance and in terrible conditions," complained Tafe Deliu who had also come to estimate damages to his house.

His hands and head in bandages, Selim Tusha condemned the authorities for setting up a military depot so close to an inhabited area.

"How can it be possible to allow a military factory to dismantle ammunition in the vicinity of villages and towns," Tusha asked.

The villagers arrived in increasing numbers since early Sunday to inspect what was left of their property, despite numerous calls by security forces not to expose themselves to still present dangers in the area.

In Tirana, hundreds of people queued outside hospitals to donate blood.

Others gathered in front of the morgue to get the latest information of the identity of two new victims discovered earlier in the day.

"This was my son's first day at work," said one worried, elderly woman.

"He wanted to go to Greece, but could not obtain a visa so he decided to work in the depot," she said, fighting back tears.

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