Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Toll rises in Battambang ammo dump blast

Toll rises in Battambang ammo dump blast

Toll rises in Battambang ammo dump blast

toll.jpg
toll.jpg

A Battambang munitions dump blast on March 31 sent unexploded ordnance sailing as far as 10 kilometers away. Many of the wounded sought treatment in Battambang's Emergency Center for War Victims.

Casualties from a Battambang ammunitions warehouse explosion continued to mount when

a mortar shell a villager was tampering with exploded.

The unidentified 20-year-old man was trying to disarm the shell and salvage the metal

and explosives, said Pring Panharith, deputy manager of Cambodian Mine Action Center

(CMAC) in Battambang province.

The latest casualty happened in Popealkhe village, Chrey commune, Thmorkol district

- five kilometers from the military warehouse - and the man was taken to a nearby

hospital having lost all fingers on at least one hand, said commune chief Kong Lim.

The mortar shell was one of thousands of pieces of unexploded ordinance projected

as far as 10 kms from the blast site in the prolonged pyrotechnics display that began

about 2 a.m. on March 31 and lasted more than nine hours.

Five people were killed and around 20 people injured by the explosion, said Colonel

Chuop Porith, chief of Battambang provincial police.

Ten of the seriously injured were sent to Battambang's Emergency Surgical Center

for War Victims, while others who sustained minor injuries went to private clinics,

Porith said.

General Bun Seng, commander of the Royal Cambodian Armed Force's Division 5 in Battambang,

announced on April 4 that the massive blast had been caused by overheating and improper

storage, but this explanation has been questioned by civilian experts.

One source close to the investigation, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said

it was unlikely room temperature alone would be enough to cause the explosion, saying

extreme heat or strong vibrations would be required.

Another source with knowledge of munitions said that while heat technically could

have caused the blast, it seemed unlikely. The blast occurred at 2 a.m. in the cool

of the night.

The building used for storing the ammunition was completely destroyed but is believed

to have been a former army food warehouse constructed with wooden walls and a zinc

roof. It was within a military compound, with residential housing about 100 meters

away.

Several villagers who live in front of the warehouse reported hearing a number of

gunshots inside the compound and seeing a tall flame moments before the explosion.

"I don't know the reason, but I heard several shots and I saw bullets flying

in the sky and the flame blew up higher than a coconut tree and suddenly there were

explosions everywhere," said Meas Sum, a 58-year-old local resident.

Sum's wife and two children were slightly injured and his house was destroyed.

"I was afraid, it was worse than the war," Sum said.

Police said they had also received reports of shooting before the blast, but they

could not confirm what had happened as the investigation was being handled by the

military.

Another local source claimed that the electricity within the military compound had

been cut for two hours prior to the explosion, but Bun Seng told the Post it was

the power to the surrounding villagers that had been cut after a thief stole the

wires.

Panharith said on April 5 that CMAC had collected about 1,457 pieces of ordnance

in the area surrounding the warehouse and were trying to ensure the safety of locals.

Sam Socheath, an operation officer of CMAC in Battambang said he had sent seven CMAC

teams with five vehicles to the field to collect the unexploded munitions.

"We are worried about the children and villagers who appear to be competing

with CMAC to collect [the ammunition] to recycle at the market," Socheath said.

"All kinds of ammunition were flying around with no focus or target. Therefore,

it is difficult to work and we need more time for research," he said.

Socheath said they had collected various caliber ammunition, including 100 mm and

122 mm mortar shells as well as BM-21 rockets and 17.7 mm, 14 mm, 23 mm, DK-82, and

DK-75 shells.

Tea Banh, minister of defense, said more time was needed to investigate the explosion

and refused to discuss how many similar storage facilities there are across the country,

calling the information a "military secret".

Programs to collect and safely store weapons have been carried out by the European

Union's Assistance on Curbing Small Arms and Light Weapons (EU-ASAC) but do not include

ammunition.

Alain Perigaud, deputy project manager of EU-ASAC, said that while purpose-built

weapons storage facilities cost between $14,000 and $45,000, depending on their size,

warehouses for ammunitions would be more complex and expensive.

Perigaud said that it was not known how many formal or informal ammunition storage

sites there were in Cambodia, but said he was aware of at least three military and

one police cache in Battambang town.

Police stations and courts have stockpiled landmines, grenades and ammunition in

the past, said Adrian Sprangemeyer, a project officer with EU-ASAC, who has appealed

for international assistance with the problem.

"The government is quite willing [to improve the storage of ammunitions], but

it's a money question - they need expat expertise and a lot of money," Sprangemeyer

said.

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