Mas­sive fire hits Ukraine’s biggest am­mu­ni­tion de­pot

Kyiv Post - - National - BY WILL PONOMARENK­O [email protected] Smoke rises high over a fire at am­mu­ni­tion arse­nal in Kharkiv Oblast on March 23. (Wla­dys­law Musi­ienko)

Mas­sive fires still raged on March 23 at the Ukrainian armed forces’ biggest am­mu­ni­tion de­pot, near Balak­liya in Kharkiv Oblast some 600 kilo­me­ters east of Kyiv.

The base was rocked by a se­ries of mas­sive ex­plo­sions of un­known ori­gin, although de­lib­er­ate sab­o­tage is one of the sus­pected causes. An in­vseti­ga­tion is un­der way.

Fur­ther det­o­na­tions of am­mu­ni­tion con­tin­ued through­out the day, even as Ukrainian tele­vi­sion chan­nels cov­ered the dis­as­ter live.

The Balak­liya arse­nal cov­ers an area of 368,000 square me­ters and con­tains 138,000 tons of am­mu­ni­tion, in­clud­ing 152 mil­lime­ter and 122 mil­lime­ter tank and ar­tillery shells.

Ac­cord­ing to the Ministry of De­fense, the am­mu­ni­tion de­pot, which is sit­u­ated just to the north­east of Balak­liya, caught fire at 2:45 a.m. Lo­cals in the town and sur­round­ing vil­lages said they heard the first mas­sive blast at 3 a.m., and fires broke out over large ar­eas of the de­pot.

As many as 500 fire­fight­ers and 150 ve­hi­cles, in­clud­ing mil­i­tary ar­mored fire­fight­ing trucks, were de­ployed to the scene dur­ing the first hours of emer­gency, the de­fense ministry re­ported, and an in­ci­dent com­mand cen­ter was set up.

Res­i­dents liv­ing near the de­pot were soon warned to pack and evac­u­ate from their homes as fires at the de­pot be­gan to spread.

Be­fore dawn, a large-scale evac­u­a­tion of civil­ians from Balak­liya, a town of 30,000 people, and sur­round­ing vil­lages within 20 kilo­me­ters of the de­pot was launched, us­ing 74 buses and 24 am­bu­lances, ac­cord­ing to Ukraine’s emer­gency ser­vice. By 7.00 a.m. lo­cal time, up to 20,000 people had been evacuated to safe lo­ca­tions.

Mean­while, all civil­ian au­to­mo­bile and rail­road traf­fic to Balak­liya has been halted, and a 40-kilo­me­ter ra­dius no-fly zone has been de­clared. The lo­cal au­thor­i­ties also stopped water, gas and elec­tric­ity sup­plies to the area in or­der to pre­vent the fur­ther spread of the blaze. Ukrainian Prime Min­is­ter Volodymyr Groys­man vis­ited the scene on the morn­ing of March 23.

Large ex­plo­sions of am­mu­ni­tion con­tin­ued through the day, with some shell and rocket frag­ments hit­ting ad­ja­cent res­i­den­tial blocks. At least one civil­ian was re­ported in­jured – a 54-year-old woman hos­pi­tal­ized with a shrapnel wound to the tem­ple. Pho­to­graphs pub­lished by the In­te­rior Ministry’s me­dia cen­ter show res­i­den­tial houses in the town dam­aged by large frag­ments of ex­ploded mis­siles.

Through the af­ter­noon of March 23, the emer­gency ser­vices con­tin­ued mak­ing at­tempts to bring the fire un­der con­trol. How­ever, the area af­fected by the fire con­tin­ued to spread, Ukrainian De­fense Ministry spokesper­son Vi­taliy Sarant­sev said.

“The fire could prob­a­bly last for up to seven days,” Prime Min­is­ter Groys­man said dur­ing a brief­ing to jour­nal­ists at the scene, adding that up to 50 per­cent of the area of the de­pot was now af­fected. Na­tional Guards units were de­ployed in Balak­liya to main­tain or­der and as­sist in the evac­u­a­tion.

Drone at­tack

At a press con­fer­ence in Kyiv on the morn­ing of March 23, Ukrainian De­fense Min­is­ter Stepan Poltorak said the ministry sus­pected that the fires and ex­plo­sions at the de­pot had re­sulted from an act of sab­o­tage.

“Var­i­ous means by which the sab­o­tage may have been com­mit­ted are un­der in­ves­ti­ga­tion, from the use of a drone to plant­ing ex­plo­sives,” the min­is­ter said.

Ukraine’s SBU se­cu­rity ser­vice also said the ac­ci­dent ap­peared to be a typ­i­cal act of sab­o­tage, and said it had opened a cor­re­spond­ing crim­i­nal case.

Ukraine’s Chief Mil­i­tary Prose­cu­tor Ana­toly Ma­tios also said that there were signs that the am­mu­ni­tion de­pot had been at­tacked by a drone.

“Ac­cord­ing to the state­ments of the guards on duty, the sound of an air­craft was heard, (a sound) sim­i­lar to an un­manned drone fly­ing, and then there were ex­plo­sions at two spots on one of the stor­age plots,” Ma­tios said dur­ing an­other brief­ing in Kyiv on March 23.

He added that the the­ory that the in­ci­dent had been caused by neg­li­gence was still un­der con­sid­er­a­tion as well.

Ukraine’s Bor­der Guard Ser­vice has stepped up se­cu­rity on the govern­ment-con­trolled part of Ukraine’s bor­der with Rus­sia in the east, the In­te­rior Ministry said in a state­ment on Face­book.

100-year-old arse­nal

The ar­tillery am­mu­ni­tion de­pot just east of the town of Balak­liya was first es­tab­lished in 1918 dur­ing the civil war in the for­mer Rus­sian Em­pire. Af­ter Ukraine be­came in­de­pen­dent in 1991, the am­mu­ni­tion de­pot was des­ig­nated as the coun­try’s 65th mil­i­tary unit. It re­mained one of the biggest am­mu­ni­tion de­pots in Ukraine and Eastern Europe – ac­cord­ing to var­i­ous es­ti­mates, the Balak­liya de­pot stored from 20–30 per­cent of the na­tion’s am­mu­ni­tion stock­pile, in­clud­ing old and ob­so­lete Soviet-era rounds.

How­ever, there were many re­ports that the de­pot was unsafe long be­fore the in­ci­dent on March 23. Pictures pub­lished in so­cial me­dia by base per­son­nel show mas­sive stores of rusty out­dated heavy mu­ni­tions be­ing stored in the open air or in sim­ple tents. The huge de­pot was guarded by only some 90 lightly armed ser­vice­men.

At a press con­fer­ence in Kyiv on March 23, SBU Se­cu­rity Ser­vice Chief Va­syl Hrit­sak con­firmed that the 65th arse­nal in Balak­liya had been re­peat­edly flagged for prob­lems with safety.

“In Fe­bru­ary this year, the head depart­ment of mil­i­tary counter-in­tel­li­gence in­formed the man­age­ment of that de­pot about de­fi­cien­cies dis­cov­ered in safety and se­cu­rity stan­dards,” Hrit­sak said.

By the evening of March 23 fires were con­tin­u­ing to burn at the de­pot, with oc­ca­sional ex­plo­sions as more am­mu­ni­tion det­o­nated. How­ever, no fur­ther ca­su­al­ties as a re­sult of the in­ci­dent had been re­ported.

An un­ex­ploded 125 mil­lime­ter pro­jec­tile struck the road to Balak­liya in Kharkiv Oblast on March 23 af­ter a mas­sive fire of sus­pi­cious ori­gin at Ukraine’s largest am­muntion de­pot. (UNIAN)

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