Ammo dump blast blamed on rocket attack; death toll reaches 19

Friday, June 28th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

SPINBOLDAK, Afghanistan (AP) _ The death toll from a series of explosions at an ammunition dump near the Pakistani border rose to 19 Friday, and a local Afghan commander said the blasts were caused by a rocket attack.

The commander, Fazaludin Agha, said it was not known who fired the rocket that set off the initial explosion, or from where. The blasts sent rockets and other munitions spraying through the town.

Several dozen people were injured and about 20 buildings wrecked in the explosions that began late Thursday and continued into Friday in Spinboldak, about 300 miles southwest of the Afghan capital of Kabul, authorities said.

The commander said the victims included women, children and Afghan soldiers. At least seven soldiers who had been guarding the munitions cache were still missing.

No American troops were believed to be in the area at the time of the explosions.

Rocket propelled grenades, anti-aircraft rounds and small arms ammunition lay strewn over a wide area of the town. Guards with Kalashnikov automatic rifles guarded the site.

The most seriously wounded were taken to hospitals in Chaman, about three miles away on the Pakistan side of the border, and to the Afghan city of Kandahar.

Residents said blasts continued almost until morning as fires continued to detonate live ammunition.

``There were a series of deafening explosions which started shaking our houses,'' said Ahmed Ali Achkazai, a Chaman resident who said he was awakened by the first blast. He said he ran outside and saw balls of fire rising into the air over Spinboldak.

Spinboldak residents said munitions rained down all over town.

``A mortar fell on my house,'' said Abdul Ghaffar, a teenaged soldier who stood guard outside the compound Friday. ``It killed my mother and my brother.''

Children and other people had earlier entered the compound looking for scrap metal that they could sell.

The explosions blasted a local government customs house where food aid was stored. A nearby mosque was also extensively damaged, its roof caved in and one wall collapsed.

Also damaged was an office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, located about 70 yards from the arms depot, spokeswoman Jennifer Clark said in Geneva. One UNHCR driver was injured and was taken to hospital in Kandahar, she said.

Two U.N.'s World Food Program tents used for storage collapsed due to ground vibrations, a spokesman said.

Spinboldak is the principal entry point for Afghan refugees returning from Pakistan's southern Baluchistan province, and relief workers said the explosions could delay the repatriation of an estimated 32,000 Afghans sheltering in five camps around the town.

UNHCR officials who inspected the damage to the office Friday were escorted by de-mining teams.

No U.S. forces were believed to be in the area, which is close to the tribal-controlled border region with Pakistan where fugitive al-Qaida and Taliban fighters are thought to have fled U.S.-led offensives.

The U.S. soldiers maintain a large base in the southern city of Kandahar, about 90 miles west of Spinboldak.

Pakistani authorities say they have arrested at least 300 al-Qaida or Taliban fighters in the tribal border region in recent months. Officials estimate there may be 1,000 more in the area.

On Thursday, Pakistani forces intensified their hunt for al-Qaida fighters who escaped a gunbattle with Pakistani troops near the village of Wana, about 190 miles west of Islamabad.

Ten Pakistani soldiers were killed and several others wounded in the clash. Government officials said two al-Qaida fighters were killed and one captured, while dozens more of the group, believed to be Chechens, escaped.