Dangerous Depots: The Growing Humanitarian Problem Posed by Aging and Poorly Maintained Munitions Storage Sites
On July 11, 2011, 98 shipping containers holding gunpowder at the Evangelos Florakis naval base on Cyprus exploded. The blast killed 13 people and injured 61 others. Additionally, the blast damaged the Vasiliko Power Plant, causing widespread rolling power outages. The containers had been sitting out in the open for more than two years, where they were subject to the hot Mediterranean climate. As this and other all-too-frequent incidents illustrate, the proper maintenance, storage, and safeguarding of conventional weapons and munitions is of vital importance. Failure to conduct proper physical security and stockpile management poses as significant a humanitarian challenge as the well-known threat of landmines and explosive remnants of war left uncleared from past conflicts.
The Vasiliko Power Plant following the July 11 munitions explosion on Cyprus, as described in detail above. CREDIT: AP.
Since the 1990s, there have been an increasing number of catastrophic explosions at arms storage facilities around the world. The frequency of such incidents has increased as urban populations have expanded outward from city centers to the vicinity of what were often previously isolated depots. The Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement in the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs (PM/WRA) and the Department of Defense’s Defense Threat Reduction Agency remain committed to helping to confront this problem.
Since 2001, the United States has partnered with more than 50 countries to promote safe disposal of surplus and aging weapons and munitions, including more than 1.5 million small arms and light weapons, more than 90,000 tons of munitions, and approximately 32,900 man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS). In addition, U.S. experts have provided assistance to improve stockpile management practices. On several occasions, PM/WRA has also deployed its Quick Reaction Force to help other countries mitigate risks from potentially dangerous depots, as well as to safely remove and dispose of unexploded ordnance (UXO) following incidents at these facilities.
According to Small Arms Survey, there were 275 accidental explosions at munitions depots between January 1998 and July 2011, causing hundreds of fatalities, thousands of injuries, and tens of thousands of people to be displaced. As munitions deteriorate further, new tragedies will follow unless this problem is more widely acknowledged and addressed. These “dangerous depots” have the potential to create even more casualties on an annual basis than landmines and explosive remnants of war. Following are some examples of these incidents.
Some Examples of Major Accidents at Munitions Depots
November 12, Bulgaria. An explosion occurred at an arms depot near Sevlievo. Bulgarian media reported no casualties, and that only one warehouse contained munitions with roughly 3,000 projectiles. Inspections were postponed due to further blasts in the following days. The investigation began formally on November 22.
September 13, Croatia. A wildfire in Padjane, near Knin in the southern part of Croatia, broke out near a military base. The Croatian Armed Forces Fire-fighting Task Force sent in aircraft to contain the fire, but were unable to approach it and had to withdraw; the fire had spread to the base and ignited munitions that were stored there, causing a large explosion and subsequent explosions. There were no injuries or deaths as a result of the blast, although some 160 local inhabitants were forced to evacuate the area.
August 24, Russia. A blast at the Ashuluk firing range in Astrakhan, on the bank of the Volga River north of the Caspian Sea, killed six Russian soldiers and injured 12. The blast occurred during munitions disposal. Criminal and military investigators were dispatched to determine the exact cause of the blast, according to the Russian Investigative Committee.
July 11, Cyprus. A massive explosion of 98 shipping containers holding gunpowder at the Evangelos Florakis naval station near Mari, Cyprus killed 13 people, including the commander of the Cypriot navy and the commander of the naval base. An additional 61 were wounded. The explosion also damaged Cyprus’ main power station, the nearby Vasiliko Power Plant, causing widespread rolling power outages. The containers had been stored in the open after they were seized by Cyprus from the Cypriot-flagged freighter M/V Monchegorsk in 2009, which was carrying the cargo from Iran to Syria. The containers were stored in the open at the naval base, where they were subject to intense summer heat.
July 11, Pakistan. An arms depot in Sihala, just outside of Islamabad, was the scene of an explosion that killed one person and injured three others. According to a Pakistani police official, the blast was an accident that happened while soldiers were handling an explosive device inside of an arms storage depot. Conflicting reports say that the explosion was the result of a fire caused by faulty electrical wiring.
July 7, Turkmenistan. An explosion occurred at a munitions depot in Abadan, a suburb of the capital city Ashgabat. The depot contained Soviet-era munitions that the Turkmen government consolidated from storage areas throughout the country after gaining independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. The explosion at the depot, half a kilometer from residential apartment buildings, expelled hazardous debris including shrapnel and UXO, and damaged a nearby power station. Turkmen government sources said that at least 15 people were killed by the explosion. Competing reports from foreign media sources have placed the death toll anywhere between 200 and 1,000. The blast continued to have repercussions: at least five soldiers were killed on July 19 as they searched for UXO in a 30-kilometer (18.6 miles) radius from the blast site. The Turkmen government later stated that extreme heat caused the blast.
June 2, Russia. A fire broke out at an arms depot in the Central Military District, Republic of Udmurtia, triggering several explosions. The depot held nearly 10,000 tons of artillery shells. Two people were killed, over 85 were injured, and nearly 30,000 citizens were evacuated from the area. News reports later cited intense heat as the cause of the initial fire that set off the artillery shells.
May 26, Russia. An explosion at a depot in Russia’s Bashkiria Republic killed one and injured approximately 12. The explosion also destroyed about 40 homes in a nearby town, and forced over 2,000 people to be evacuated.
March 28, Yemen. Explosions at a munitions facility in Ja’ar killed 110 people. No formal cause has yet been identified, but the explosion happened after residents broke into the facility to loot its contents amid fighting between government forces and rebel militants.
March 4, Libya. An explosion at an opposition arms depot near Benghazi leveled nearby buildings and caused an unknown number of deaths. Some news reports have placed the death toll as high as 60.
February 16, Tanzania. Munitions at the Tanzania People’s Defense Force’s Gongo la Mboto military base near Dar es Salaam exploded, sending debris into densely populated neighborhoods near the base and destroying at least 160 homes. The explosion destroyed 23 explosive storage sheds on the base, and caused at least 26 civilian deaths and injured hundreds more. The blast also forced 4,000 civilians to seek refuge in the national stadium in Dar es Salaam.
Mangled remains of storage sheds and shells litter the ground at the Gongo la Mboto weapons and munitions storage facility near Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. CREDIT: Colonel Daniel Chartier, Department of Defense Explosives Safety Board.
January 30, Venezuela. A fire at an arms depot in the city of Maracay, 60 miles west of Caracas, caused massive explosions, resulting in one death, three injuries, the evacuation of 10,000 residents, and the clearance of all civilian structures within a five-mile (8-kilometer) radius of the blast. The Venezuelan government opened an investigation into the blast, but as of the time of release of this fact sheet had not yet drawn any conclusions about what cause of the fire.
October 28, Russia. A box containing shells for grenade launchers fell from a high shelf, detonated, and set off other explosions at a depot in the Amur region. There were no deaths, although one person did receive severe burns and 300 civilians living nearby were evacuated.
September 17, Sri Lanka. Three containers of explosives blew up at a police station in Karadiyanaru, Batticaloa District. The explosion killed at least 27 people. The explosives were intended for a Chinese construction company working on a nearby road project, and were being stored at the police station for safekeeping. The blast killed police officers and Chinese construction workers. Fifty-two civilians from Karadiyanaru were injured. Initial investigations indicated that the explosives were stored improperly. The bulk of the explosives were improperly stored with detonators, which could have caused the blast.
July 5, Russia. An officer was killed and a serviceman was injured in a blast at a military training ground in Russia’s Saratov region. They were reportedly disposing of expired explosive material. The assistant prosecutor for the Volga-Urals Military District stated that the soldiers violated safety regulations in the course of their work.
February 3-4, Bulgaria. Landmines slated for destruction at the privately-owned Midzhur factory in Gorni Lom were caught up in explosions that lasted for two days. The blasts resulted in injuries to three employees at the facility. No cause of the explosion has been identified.
November 13, Russia. A detonation during munitions disposal operations caused a series of explosions at an ammunition depot reportedly storing artillery munitions and torpedoes on the outskirts of Ulyanovsk, a city approximately 550 miles (900 kilometers) southeast of Moscow. The explosions, which lasted several hours, also forced the evacuation of over 3,000 nearby inhabitants. Reports of casualties varied, but at least two military firefighters were killed with an undetermined number injured as a result of the accident. Eight additional Russian bomb disposal personnel were killed and two others injured in a new explosion at the depot during clean-up operations. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev called for the dismissal of several high-ranking military officials for “criminal negligence.”
June 8, Kazakhstan. A series of late night explosions in a Soviet-era munitions depot on the outskirts of Almaty killed one soldier and caused dozens more persons to be evacuated. The explosions, which continued into the next day, involved large stores of artillery shells as well as heavy machine gun ammunition.
April 29, Tanzania. A large explosion involving rockets, artillery, and mortar shells rocked the Mbagala munitions depot located approximately eight miles (14 kilometers) from the center of Dar es Salaam. The initial explosion, followed by a series of additional blasts, killed 26 people, injured more than 300, destroyed as many as 7,000 homes, and prompted mass evacuations of residential neighborhoods surrounding the depot.
July 10, Uzbekistan. An explosion at a military depot in Kagan, southeast of Bukhara, killed at least three people and injured 21, according to the government. There were unconfirmed reports of even more casualties.
July 3, Bulgaria. A series of explosions at the Chelopechene munitions depot near Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria, rocked the city, temporarily closed the international airport, and forced the evacuation of residents within a six-kilometer (3.7 mile) radius. Tons of ammunition and explosives blew up immediately. More munitions and explosives were damaged, posing an ongoing threat. The United States offered immediate assistance to help clean up this hazardous explosive site and Bulgaria accepted. As of the publication of this fact sheet, cleanup operations and disposal of UXO were ongoing.
March 15, Albania. Massive explosions at a munitions demilitarization site in Gërdec, northwest of the capital Tirana, killed 26 people, injured over 300, destroyed over 400 homes, and resulted in the evacuation of over 4,000 nearby inhabitants. The precise cause of the explosions is still being investigated. Preliminary findings point to unsafe procedures that triggered a spontaneous explosion which created numerous secondary explosions. The U.S. Embassy in Tirana, Department of State, and Department of Defense provided immediate assistance. Subsequently, the Department of State’s Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement has invested millions of dollars to help Albanian authorities thoroughly and safely clean up all of the highly dangerous UXO that still litters the site and surrounding area. As of the publication of this fact sheet, cleanup operations are ongoing. See statements related to this tragedy on the U.S. Embassy website.
December 29, Colombia. A series of explosions at an army base in Medellín 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 six miles (9.6 kilometers) north of Aleppo killed 15 soldiers and wounded 50. Officials blamed the explosion on a heat wave.
June 17, Democratic Republic of the Congo. An 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. 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. UXO from that explosion continued to injure people for several days afterwards. Hot weather and negligence were cited as causes. The depot contained obsolete Soviet-era weapons and munitions. It had already experienced an explosion in January which injured three people.
October 19, Serbia. An explosion in a munitions depot injured approximately 20 people in the town of Paracin and caused damage, some of it significant, 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 Department of State’s Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement.
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 five 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.
The remains of a house damaged in a stockpile explosion in Bajgah, Afghanistan. CREDIT: AP.
May 6, Ukraine. Five people were killed and over 300 wounded in explosions from 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 – Novo-bogdanovka, 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, India. An explosion at a munitions depot in Amritsar injured 30 persons.
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 and injured 22 people, 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 military depot, and injured 15 other military personnel and 80 civilians on the base, which is located about half a mile (.8 kilometers) from the city of Tumbes in the northwestern corner of the country along the Pacific coast.
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 a UXO item that had been projected from this 2002 explosion.
June 28, Afghanistan. Nineteen 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. An 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 2001 entry 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 during the night, 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. 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.
The explosions at Ikeja ammunition depot in Lagos, Nigeria caused damage to the homes of local residents. CREDIT: AP Photo/Tunji Oyeleru.
January 11, India. An explosion at a munitions depot in Bikaner killed two and injured 12 people.
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. (See related incident in 2002.)
August 16, India. An accidental explosion at a government-run explosives factory in Tamil Nadu killed 25 persons and injured three. The plant manufactured both explosives and detonating fuses.
August 8, Kazakhstan. Spontaneous combustion reportedly ignited a fire that caused munitions to explode at a depot 30 miles (48 kilometers) from the town of Balkhash. Several villages were evacuated. There were no reports of casualties. The BBC reported that the depot 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 3.5 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 injuring 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. Fourteen 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. Ten people were killed after a fire caused a series of explosions at an ammunitions depot at an army base in the Guinean capital, Conakry.
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 also reported to have severely depleted the Indian Army’s munitions reserves.
April 14, Democratic Republic of the Congo. A suspected electrical fire triggered a series of explosions in a hangar being used as an ammunition storage area at Kinshasa’s airport, killing 101 people and injuring more than 200.
October 9, Afghanistan. An explosion at a munitions depot in Mazar-e-Sharif caused by improper handling killed seven people and injured 12.
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.
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. The month of March 1997 saw explosions in 15 towns due to human error and inadequate security, resulting 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 UXO scattered by the blasts.
February 15, Afghanistan. An explosion in a munitions depot outside Kabul resulted in 60 killed and over 125 injured.
July 16, Brazil. An explosion at a munitions storage area near the city of Boquerio resulted in 100 killed, and an unknown number of injured.
Some information in the historical timeline in this Fact Sheet was drawn from a list entitled “Major Ammunition Accidents – 1916 to 2011” 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.