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At least 20 defence personnel including two army officers were killed and 19 others were injured when an overnight fire raged through India’s biggest weapons stockpile in Maharashtra’s Wardha district, officials said on Tuesday.
Television footage showed massive flames lighting up the night sky at Pulgaon where the central ammunition depot is located. Pulgaon is around 110km from Nagpur.
The blaze triggered multiple explosions, rocking houses in the area and forcing the evacuation of more than 1,000 people.
An army officer identified two among the dead as Lt Col RS Pawar and Major K Manoj.
The dead and injured soldiers belonged to the Defence Security Corp (DSC) that guards strategic defence installations.
According to unofficial sources, the dead also included two fire brigade personnel who battled through the night to control the blaze that started at around 1.30am. At least 10 fire tenders were pressed into service.
All the injured persons were rushed to a private run medical college at Sawangi where the condition of three was said to be critical.
The cause of the fire is yet to be ascertained. The government ordered a probe into the incident.
“The main fire at one of the sheds has been extinguished. The situation is being stabilised,” an Army officer said. He, however, did not rule out “secondary fire and (more) explosions”.
Defence minister Manohar Parikkar is expected to visit the depot later in the day.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi said he was “pained by loss of lives”, adding on Twitter that his “thoughts are with the bereaved families”.
Maharashtra chief minister Devendra Fadnavis said the accident had caused a “great loss of lives and property”.
“It’s a very unfortunate incident. Many of our men were killed in the blaze,” he told reporters.
The Pulgaon depot -- Asia’s second largest -- stocks ammunition including bombs, grenades, shells and other explosives from various factories before they are distributed across states.
In 2007, a fire wrecked an ammunition dump in Jammu and Kashmir, exploding artillery shells and mortar rounds, which rained down on surrounding villages. At least 17 people were killed and two dozen injured.
A fire also ripped through one of the army’s largest ammunition depots in 2010 in Kolkata, destroying 150 tonnes of explosives and ammunition. No one was killed in the accident.
(With agency inputs)