Thousands evacuated after blasts at Russian arms depot

MOSCOW (AFP) - More than six thousand people were evacuated overnight in central Russia after a series of massive explosions at an arms depot blew out windows and sparked a fire, the emergency situations ministry said on Wednesday.

The blasts began on Tuesday night and continued for hours after being sparked by efforts to dispose of munitions at an arms depot close to the town of Chapayevsk in the Samara region around 1,000km from Moscow.

The depot contained around 18 million shells, the regional Investigative Committee said in a statement on Wednesday.

Russian television showed footage of huge columns of black smoke rising from the depot, while a correspondent for Rossiya 24 television at the scene said that explosions rang out every minute overnight.

Over six thousand residents were evacuated from the settlement of Nagorny around five kilometres from the depot where the explosions broke windows, the emergency situations ministry said.

A total of 48 people needed medical treatment and 11 were hospitalised, the regional Investigative Committee said, without specifying the nature of their injuries.

The emergency situations ministry used aircraft to drop water on the fire.

The situation stabilised on Wednesday morning, the ministry said, with explosions ceasing around 6am, while a fire continued to blaze.

Samara regional police said on Tuesday evening that the explosions began during work aimed at disposing of the old shells.

Regional investigators launched a criminal probe into a breach of safety regulations.

Such accidents occur frequently at Russian arms depots that store vast stockpiles of old munitions in primitive conditions with little regard to public safety, and often close to settlements.

In October 2012, a depot containing 4,000 tonnes of munitions exploded in the Urals region, causing thousands to be evacuated .

In May 2012, a similar accident caused the death of six soldiers in the Nizhny Novgorod region of central Russia.