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. Albania's blast toll mounts as rescuers look for victims

V grab taken on March 16, 2008 on Top Channel TV shows one of the blasts that occured on March 15, 2008 at an Albanian military depot in the village of Gerdec, 12 km from the capital Tirana. Some 400 Albanian troops searched through rubble on March 16, 2008 for survivors of a huge munitions blast that razed an army base and killed at least nine people. 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
Rescue workers halted work for the night for fear of setting off more unexploded shells at the site of the devastating Albanian munitions blast, as the death toll rose to nine Sunday.

"The search will resume tomorrow morning because it is impossible to work at night in the zone, with a lot of unexploded shells and munitions that are a danger to everyone," said the Albania's chief of staff, General Luan Hoxha.

Earlier Sunday, Albanian Prime Minister Sali Berisha announced the discovery of four more victims at the site of the blast, near the village of Gerdec outside the capital Tirana.

"One young woman was found in the rubble of her house," he added.

All day, rescuers searched the rubble at the army depot, sifting through the remains of communist-era weaponry and what was left of the surrounding houses.

Saturday's series of blasts also left more than 200 people injured.

Berisha told reporters that "at least a dozen people are reported missing."

"We are verifying employees' registers who were at the site in time of blast," Berisha said.

Some 1,000 soldiers and 500 policemen had been working at the blast site since 8:00 a.m. (0700 GMT) Saturday.

They had to secure the disaster zone to guard against further explosions and to demine the area, while army helicopters were flying over the site, about 12 kilometres (eight miles) north of Tirana.

Of the 243 people registered as injured, more than 100 were hospitalised in Tirana and the nearby town of Durres.

"At least 17 of those seriously injured have and will be transferred to Italy and Grece by planes," said Berisha, expressing his gratitude to the countries that had offered their assistance.

Officials said the blast had destroyed at least 318 houses, seriously damaged another 185 and and inflicted lesser damage on about 1,800.

"The government of Albania will assist all familes and help inhabitants of this region," Berisha said, adding that an investigation into the incident had already begun.

Albanian newspapers described the blast as "Albania's Hiroshima" and an "Apocalyptic tragedy."

Officials said 121 people were in the depot at the time of the explosion, but authorities were hoping that many of them had found somewhere to take shelter after the first blast.

A pall of thick, black smoke still hung over Gerdec, where an eery silence prevailed on Sunday, broken only by sporadic explosions almost 24 hours after the first blast.

Despite the danger of unexploded ordnance, dozens of villagers returned to the area to inspect their homes, many of which were razed to the ground, nothing left but still smouldering ruins.

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

At the time of the first explosion around noon (1100 GMT) Saturday, military personnel were disposing of shells. They were assisted by employees of a US company contracted by NATO to help the Albanian army get rid of surplus, communist-era munitions.

Berisha said no foreigners were working at the depot at the time of the blasts.

Destroying the old munitions is one of the conditions Albania must fulfill to become a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation.

But villagers complained of having the depot so close to their homes.

"That was blood money, working hours were long and people were paid less than 100 euros (154 dollars), without any insurance and in terrible conditions," said Tafe Deliu, as he inspected the damage to his house.

In Tirana, hundreds of people queued to donate blood for the victims while others gathered outside the morgue seeking news of the victims.

"This was my son's first day at work," said one old woman, fighting back tears.

Albanian Defence Minister Fatmir Mediu said there still about 100,000 tonnes of antiquated munitions in the country posing a threat to the population.

Along with Croatia and Macedonia, Albania hopes to be invited to join NATO at a summit in Bucharest early next month.

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After catastrophic blasts, smoke covers Albanian village in rubbles
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.

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