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Problem Of Ageing And Poorly Maintained Munitions

Fact Sheet
Bureau of Political-Military Affairs, Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement
Washington, DC
August 4, 2008

Dangerous Depots: The Growing Humanitarian Problem Posed by Ageing and Poorly Maintained Munitions Storage Sites Around the World

Some information in the historical timeline in this Fact Sheet was drawn from a list entitled "Major Ammunition Accidents - 1916 to 2008" compiled by Colonel George Zahaczewsky, U.S. Army (Retired). Colonel Zahaczewsky was formerly the Director of the U.S. Department of Defense's Humanitarian Demining Research & Development Program.

Information was also drawn from "Recent Explosive Events in Ammunition Storage Areas," a report of 137 incidents released in June 2007 by the South Eastern and Eastern Europe Clearinghouse for the Control of Small Arms and Light Weapons (http://www.seesac.org).

On March 15, 2008, a series of massive and deadly explosions ripped through an Albanian government munitions depot in the village of Gërdec near Tirana, resulting in 24 deaths, injuries to over 300 more people, and catastrophic damage to hundreds of homes and other civilian structures within a 2.5 kilometer (1 1/2 miles) radius. Contributing factors to the initial explosion which triggered a cascade of further explosions involved old, unstable ammunition, improper storage, and unsafe handling. Sadly, this was not a unique incident.

One of several craters left by the explosions that leveled the munitions depot at Gërdec, Albania. Dangerous unexploded ordnance is strewn everywhere. Some of the houses that were heavily damaged and rendered uninhabitable by the blast are visible in the background. Even houses that were much farther away were damaged when the shockwaves of the blasts literally lifted their roofs, which broke when they came back down. CREDIT: Ken Underwood, EOD Solutions.

Catastrophic explosions at other munitions storage depots in populated areas in Uzbekistan and Bulgaria have since occurred. They are but the latest in a series of incidents spanning many years and among the most recent manifestations of an international problem that has worsened since the end of the Cold War - government arms depots filled with ageing, unstable, poorly maintained, improperly stored, and weakly guarded munitions. These "dangerous depots" have the potential to create even more casualties on an annual basis than landmines and explosive remnants of war.

The Landmine Monitor recorded a total of 5,751 known casualties in 2006 from landmines and explosive remnants of war worldwide. Yet in one afternoon alone in 2007, a catastrophic explosion at a munitions depot outside of Maputo, the capital of Mozambique, killed and injured over 600 people, far more than the 35 people reportedly killed by landmines and explosive remnants of war in Mozambique the previous year.

Years ago the United States recognized this growing humanitarian threat to innocent civilians around the world whose homes, schools, markets, and places of worship are in close proximity to munitions depots filled with ageing artillery shells, bombs, and other munitions - even sea mines - and that are prone to spontaneous explosions due to improper storage and unsafe handling.

The Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement (www.state.gov/t/pm/wra) in the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Political-Military Affairs offers Physical Security and Stockpile Management assistance to other countries to help them deal with their dangerous depots. This office, in concert with the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (http://www.dtra.mil/oe/osi/programs/smarms/index.cfm?More), has already been invited by several countries around the world to provide such assistance. In fact, the largest arms and munitions destruction project in history is being undertaken in Ukraine through a NATO Partnership-for-Peace Trust Fund project (http://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2006/72935.htm), in which this Office is serving as the focal point for the United States, which is the lead donor. Unfortunately, the United States has received fewer requests for help than is commensurate to the problem of dangerous munitions depots around the world.

The historic timeline of selected incidents below indicates that the humanitarian impact posed by dangerous depots is widespread and worsening.

SOME EXAMPLES OF MAJOR ACCIDENTS AT MUNITIONS DEPOTS

2008

July 10, Uzbekistan. An explosion at a military depot in Kagan, southeast of Bukhara, killed at least 3 persons and injured 21, according to the host government. There have been unconfirmed reports of even more casualties.

July 3, Bulgaria. A series of explosions at the Chelopchene munitions depot in Sofia, capital of Bulgaria, rocked the city and forced the evacuation of residents within a 6 kilometer (3.7 mile) radius. Tons of ammunition and explosives blew up immediately. More munitions and explosives are believed to be damaged, constituting a danger. The United States immediately offered to help remediate this hazardous explosive site and Bulgaria accepted. The Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement is preparing to render assistance.

March 15, Albania. A massive explosion at a munitions depot in Gërdec, northwest of the capital Tirana, killed some 24 people, injured over 300, destroyed over 400 homes, and resulted in the evacuation of over 4,000 nearby residents. The depot was being used as a munitions demilitarization facility. The precise cause of the explosion is still being investigated. Preliminary findings point to unsafe procedures that triggered a spontaneous explosion which created numerous secondary explosions. The U.S. Embassy, Department of State, and Department of Defense immediately provided assistance. Subsequently, the Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement has committed $2 million to help Albanian authorities thoroughly and safely clean up all of the highly dangerous unexploded ordnance that still litters the site and environs. See statements related to this tragedy on the U.S. Embassy website at http://tirana.usembassy.gov/2008_releases.html.

2007

December 29, Colombia. A series of about six explosions at an army base in Medellin, killed two people, injured seven, and caused neighboring civilian residents to flee. The first explosion was reportedly caused by a grenade that detonated inside a weapons storage area.

July 26, Syria. An explosion at a munitions depot at a military complex approximately 6 miles north of Aleppo killed 15 soldiers and wounded 50. Officials blamed the explosion on a heat wave.

June 17, Democratic Republic of Congo. A Congolese Army munitions depot near Mbandaka in Equateur Province was destroyed in an explosion, which killed three people and injured 52.

April 7, Sudan. The international airport in Khartoum was closed temporarily due to an explosion in an adjacent munitions depot. Fortunately, there were no reported casualties.

March 22, Mozambique. Over 100 people were killed and more than 500 injured when the Malhazine Ammunition Depot exploded in a densely populated neighborhood 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) from the center of downtown Maputo, the capital. Unexploded ordnance from that explosion continued to injure people for several days afterwards. Hot weather and negligence were cited as the cause. The depot was constructed in 1984 by the Soviet Union and stockpiled with obsolete Soviet-era weapons and munitions. It had already experienced an explosion in January which injured three people.

2006

October 19, Serbia. An explosion in a munitions depot injured approximately 20 people in the adjacent town of Paracin and caused damage, some of it significant, in that town and in the villages of Cuprija and Jagodina. The United Kingdom and United Nations Development Program (UNDP) provided assistance.

March 23, Afghanistan. Two civilians were killed and almost 60 were injured, along with 18 Afghan Army soldiers, when a fire and explosion occurred in a storage area for confiscated weapons and ammunition in Jabal Saraj, northeast of Kabul. The munitions had been collected as part of the Disarmament of Illegal Armed Groups Program sponsored by the UNDP. Leaking white phosphorus munitions may have caused the accident. The site was eventually cleared by a DynCorp International explosive ordnance disposal team funded by the Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement.

2005

October 1, Russia. A fire in a Russian Pacific Fleet ammunition storage depot on the Kamchatka Peninsula forced the evacuation of five local towns. Although subsequent explosions in the depot scattered flying ordnance over an 8 kilometer (nearly 5 miles) area, there were no reported casualties.

May 2, Afghanistan. An illicit collection of munitions in Bajgah, north of Kabul, exploded, killing 28 people, injuring 13 and leveling 25 houses in the village. The munitions had been stockpiled by a local militia commander.

2004

May 6, Ukraine. Five people were killed and over 300 wounded in explosions in ammunition-loaded railroad cars at a munitions storage site near Melitopol (Novo-Bogdanovka) in the Zaporozhye region of Ukraine. The explosions also forced the evacuation of over 5,000 people living within a 15 kilometer (9.3 mile) radius of the disaster site. Over 300 buildings were destroyed, and six villages - Novobohdanovka, Vorozhdeniye, Privolnoye, Spaskoye, Oriovo and Vysokoye - within 40 kilometers (nearly 25 miles) of the depot were reported to be partially or totally destroyed. Some reports attributed the accident to cigarette smoking within the depot.

February 19, 2004. 30 persons were injured due to an explosion at a munitions depot in Amritsar, India.

2003

October 11, Ukraine. Several thousand people were evacuated from their homes after a series of explosions ripped through a munitions depot at Artemovsk (Artyomovsky) in the eastern Donetsk region. The explosions, caused by a fire, shattered the windows of several apartment blocks.

June 28, Iraq. Approximately 30 Iraqis were killed, and scores injured, when an artillery ammunition dump they were looting north of Haditha blew up.

March 23, Ecuador. An explosion at a navy base in Guayaquil killed one, injured 22 and damaged at least 360 homes. A second explosion occurred on March 30 but reportedly caused no new casualties.

January 23, Peru. An explosion killed seven Peruvian military personnel who were inspecting ammunition at a base depot, and injured 15 other military personnel and 80 civilians on the base, which is located about half a mile from the city of Tumbes.

2002
November 21, Ecuador. Two explosions in the munitions depot of Ecuador's largest military installation near the city of Riobamba killed seven people and injured 274. The incident was attributed to the accidental detonation of a grenade during a munitions handling operation.

October 30, Mozambique. The explosion of a munitions depot in Beira reportedly killed six people, injured 50 others, and affected approximately 900 more. Three more people who lived in the area were killed in November 2006 after encountering an item of unexploded ordnance that had been projected from this 2002 explosion.

June 28, Afghanistan. 19 people (some reports state 32) were killed and as many as 70 injured when a munitions depot blew up in Spin Boldak. The explosion (cause unknown, although there was one report of a rocket attack) scattered rocket-propelled grenades, antiaircraft rounds, and small arms ammunition over a wide area.

January 29, Thailand. A second, smaller explosion occurred in a munitions depot in Pak Chong and resulted in 11 casualties. The cause of the accident was the munitions that had been damaged during a previous incident in 2001 (see further below).

January 27, Nigeria. Catastrophic explosions at the Ikeja ammunition depot in the center of Lagos, and the resulting panic which caused as many as 600 people to drown in a canal as they fled, resulted in more than 1,100 deaths, and 5,000 injured. The accident displaced 20,000 people and destroyed much of the northern part of Lagos. A fire near the depot reportedly initiated the explosion. However, other reports blamed the accident on the deteriorated condition of much of the old munitions stored there. The U.S. Department of State's former Office of Humanitarian Demining Programs (a precursor to the Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement) provided clean up assistance through a contract with RONCO Consulting Corporation.

January 11, India. An explosion at a munitions depot in Bikaner killed two persons and injured 12.

2001

October 25, Thailand. A series of explosions killed 19 military personnel, and injured 90 others at a munitions depot in Nakhon Ratchasima's Pak Chong area (Korat). The incident occurred during the movement of unserviceable ammunition. It prompted the evacuation of the nearby town of Pak Chong. (Also see related incident in 2002.)

August 16, 2001. An explosion at a munitions depot in Tamil Nadr killed 25 persons and injured three.

August 8, Kazakhstan. Spontaneous combustion reportedly ignited a fire that caused munitions to explode at a depot 30 miles from the town of Balkhash. Several villages were evacuated. Fortunately there were no reports of casualties. According to the BBC, the depot reportedly contained "ammunition for the entire ground troops and the air force" of Kazakhstan.
June 8, Vietnam. At least four people were injured and 100 homes damaged in an explosion at an army base in central Vietnam when some three and half tons of explosives and ammunition blew up.

May 24, India. Fire and explosions destroyed an Indian Army munitions depot near the town of Suratgarh in the state of Rajasthan, killing one person and injured five. The initial fire which triggered the explosions was reportedly caused by the spontaneous ignition of artillery propellant. Explosions and fires prompted the evacuation of about 3,000 people from adjoining villages.

May 20, Yemen. 14 people were killed, and 50 wounded when munitions blew up in Al-Bayda.


April 29, India. A fire at a munitions depot on the outskirts of the city of Pathankot in the state of Punjab forced the evacuation of thousands of residents and destroyed over 500 tons of ammunition. There were no reports of casualties.

March 3, Guinea. 10 people were killed after a fire caused a series of explosions at an ammunitions depot at an army base in the Guinean capital, Conakry.

2000

April 28, India. A fire at the Bharatpur munitions depot in Rajasthan killed five personnel, and injured seven. The fire and explosion affected 20 open storage areas and nine warehouses holding approximately 12 tons of munitions, including missiles. The incident also caused extensive damage to 20 surrounding villages. This accident was reported to have severely depleted the Indian Army's munitions reserves.

April 14, Democratic Republic of Congo. A suspected electrical fire triggered a series of explosions in a hangar being used as an ammunition storage area at Kinshasa airport, killing 101 people and injuring more than 200.

1999

October 9, Afghanistan. An explosion at a munitions depot in Mazar-e-Sharif, caused by improper handling, killed seven people and injured twelve.

1998

June 19, Russia. At least 14 servicemen were killed and another 17 wounded after lightning struck an army munitions depot in the Ural Mountains containing 240 tons of ammunition.

1997

July 8, Ecuador. An explosion at a munitions depot in La Balbina killed four people, wounded several dozen, and destroyed 1,200 homes.

March 19, Afghanistan. A large explosion, reportedly involving 200 tons of munitions, occurred in a munitions depot near Jalalabad, killing 30 people and injuring approximately 200.

March, Albania. Explosions in munitions storage sites in 15 towns during this month due to human error and inadequate security resulted in 59 killed and an equal number injured. These incidents prompted NATO to provide an Ammunition Storage and Disposal Team to train the Albanian armed forces to safely clear the large quantity of unexploded ordnance scattered by the blasts.

1996

February 15, Afghanistan. An explosion in a munitions depot outside Kabul resulted in 60 killed and over 125 injured.

1995

16 July, Brazil. An explosion at a munitions storage area near the city of Boquerio resulted in 100 killed, and an unknown number of injured.

The preceding list of incidents is merely a sampling. There have been many more accidents at munitions depots around the world over the years. The phenomenon of catastrophic explosions at munitions depots is not new, nor is it simply a post-Cold War development. For example, on August 18, 1946 the sudden detonation of 28 sea mines, containing approximately 9 tons of explosives, killed 70 personnel and injured 100 others in Vergarolla, Croatia. However, since the end of the Cold War, the frequency of such incidents has increased as has the expansion of civilian dwellings towards what were once isolated depots in some cases. As munitions deteriorate further, new tragedies will follow unless this problem is more widely acknowledged and addressed. The Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement and the Defense Threat Reduction Agency remain committed to helping to confront it.

ENDS

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