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9 Dead, 300 Wounded from Explosions at Albanian Munitions Dump

ALBANIA -- Rescue teams worked into the night Sunday to try to locate nine people still missing a day after a chain of massive explosions flattened an Albanian ammunition dump and hundreds of nearby houses, killing at least nine and injuring nearly 300.

Defense Ministry spokesman Igli Hasani said the operation would continue "for as long as needed," but rescuers assisted by U.S. military explosives experts were hampered by large quantities of unexploded artillery shells.

"The search operation will continue into the night with limited groups of experts," he said.

Saturday's explosions in the village of Gerdec, about six miles north of Tirana, scattered shells over 2,500 acres, Hasani said.

Prime Minister Sali Berisha said the explosions were an accident: blasts triggered during work to destroy excess ammunition stockpiled during Albania's Communist past.

Nine bodies have been found. Another nine workers and villagers remained missing Sunday, authorities said. Health Minister Nard Ndoka said 298 people were injured, including children, and more than 50 remained hospitalized. Eight of the injured are in serious condition and are to be transported to Italy for treatment.

Rescuers found three charred bodies in the army depot and the body of a woman in a nearby house on Sunday.

The chain of explosions started Saturday and continued for 14 hours until early Sunday.

Berisha said the blast destroyed more than 300 houses in the neighboring village, while a further 2,000 homes and businesses were damaged. Footage showed a ball of fire shooting up from the site, with shrapnel and shell fragments raining down on homes and cars.

Gerdec was declared an emergency zone, and Berisha promised relief for villagers who lost their homes.

"As soon as the damage is fully assessed, the government will commit all its resources to quickly react and rebuild the totally destroyed zone," he said.

The blast left a massive crater at the depot.

The first blast was heard as far away as Skopje, the Macedonian capital, about 120 miles away, and prompted a brief suspension of flights at Tirana's nearby international airport, where the blast blew out doors and windows. The explosion also damaged a major electricity transmission point, leaving the area without power.

Authorities evacuated 4,000 people from three villages and the surrounding area, with houses more than a mile away damaged by the blast.

Defense Minister Fatmir Mediu said villagers might have to stay away from their homes for several days, until the area has been secured.

"We have isolated the area but our fear is that the ammunition could be reactivated because we don't know how much has exploded," he told AP Television News.

"The other fear is that the ground is so hot that something could be suddenly reactivated. So that's why all the villages around have been evacuated so we can see clearly in the next few hours and days what exactly the situation there is."

A company had been subcontracted to destroy excess ammunition, Berisha said. In the past year, about 6,000-7,000 tons of ammunition have been destroyed.

Albaniahas some 100,000 tons of excess ammunition stored in former army depots across the country, Mediu said. NATO countries, particularly the United States, Canada and Norway, have been helping Albania dispose of excess ammunition and obsolete weaponry.

Authorities said most of the ammunition at Gerdec was Russian and Chinese artillery shells made in the 1960s, when Albania was under Communist rule.

Berisha said he could not rule out human error but said the ammunition could have exploded spontaneously because of its age.

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