Massive fire hits Ukraine’s biggest ammunition depot
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.
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.
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)