Monday, May 1, 2000,
Chandigarh, India





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Sabotage not ruled out
Fernandes briefs PM on Bharatpur fire
Tribune News Service

NEW DELHI, April 30 — The situation at Bharatpur ammunition depot, which witnessed devastating fire on Friday in which over 10,000 tonnes of ammunition went up in smoke, was under control with the fire having been completely put out.

The last of the sporadic explosions occurred yesterday in the evening and the things were under control, a Defence Ministry spokesman said today.

While the Defence Minister, Mr George Fernandes, briefed the Prime Minister, Mr Atal Behari Vajpayee, about the prevailing situation at Bharatpur today, the Defence Ministry spokesman said: “The situation is absolutely under control and the fire has been put out. The sporadic explosions have also stopped. The last explosion as a result of bursting of shells took place at about 5.30 pm yesterday,” he said quoting Director General (Army Ordnance Services) Gen S.K. Bhatnagar, who returned here from Bharatpur in the morning.

Official sources said the toll in the fire had risen to five with two of the injured succumbing to their injuries. The casualties, all civilians, were caused by sharpnels.

Mr Fernandes who carried out an aerial survey and later visited the area yesterday, called on Mr Vajpayee this morning. During the 30-minute meeting, Mr Fernandes explained the measures taken to contain the blaze.

Although further details were not available, sources said the Defence Minister also explained to the Prime Minister, the possible reasons for the explosions and what investigations were being carried out in this regard. He also informed the Prime Minister about the security measures which had been taken at other such ammunition depots.

According to reports reaching here, three bomb disposal companies from different parts of the country reached Bharatpur to defuse and check the unexploded ‘rogue bombs’. Since the fire at the depot was totally under control it would be easier for them to go about checking on the unexploded bombs.

The Army had also launched an operation to clean up the depot since a lot of debris from the exploded 10,000 tonnes of small arms, tank and long range artillary ammunition was littered all over the area.

Experts have estimated loss of the ammunition at over Rs 2,000 crore.

Experts also point out that it was miraculous that the fire did not reach the spot where the surface-to-air missiles SAM-6 and SAM-7 and anti-tank missiles Milan, were stored. Had the fire reached the missiles, it would have been catastrophic for entire Bharatpur town and nearby Agra city.

Reports said Army personnel and local authorities had begun an exercise to retrieve partially exploded or unexploded shells from the area around the depot as these posed a grave danger to them. As a result of the fire the shells had flown out of the complex resulting the deaths also.

The Defence Ministry spokesman said the villagers from areas surrounding the southern Army Command depot, who had left their homes in panic had started returning.

A staff court of inquiry headed by a Major-General and comprising Army explosives experts and frontline commanders had been ordered to probe the cause of the fire.

According to preliminary reports the fire started from dry grass outside the perimeter of the depot it.

Before the guard could raise the alarm the fire touched the exposed ammunition storage dump.

An Army spokesman said the fire could have spread inside the depot due to very high velocity wind and extremely high temperatures (around 46C).

The exploding rockets of 120 mm of multi-barrel rocket launchers had hit 14 adjoining villages and parts of Bharatpur town, Mr Fernandes, who visited the area said.

Though the fire is suspected to be accidental, the Army authorities have not ruled out sabotage and that explains the unusual ordering of a staff court of inquiry.
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It may be Baddowal next
Tribune News Service

BADDOWAL, (Ludhiana) April 30 — In the wake of the fire at the Bharatpur ammunition depot yesterday, where around 14,000 tonnes of ammunition was destroyed and three persons killed, the district administration has asked the Ministry of Defence to file an appeal in the Supreme Court for the vacation of an earlier Punjab and Haryana High Court order, staying the demolition of the 300 odd structures in the notified area (1000 yards near the Baddowal ammunition depot).

According to the information available from reliable sources, a letter to this effect has been sent to the Secretary, Union Ministry of Defence, today.

The administration is also learnt to have imposed prohibitory orders against the assembling of more than 50 persons in this notified area, especially in the five marriage palaces, located in the vicinity of the depot without permission from the Deputy Commissioner.

It has also been ordered that in case of a gathering of more than 50 persons in these marriage palaces, namely, Megha Resorts, Spring Fields, White Rock, Four Aces and Fifth Milestone, the owners of these palaces would be required to make arrangements for fire fighting and at their own expense.

When contacted, the Deputy Commissioner, Mr Arun Goel told TNS, “We have appealed to the people against any constructions in the area and to desist from using the existing structures in the notified area for safety purposes. The construction work near the depot can also have an adverse effect on the depot.”

The Defence Act, 1903, stipulates that the area (ranging from 1000 yard to 3000 yards, varying from one depot to another) be declared as a work of defence area and no construction be allowed here.

The district administration says that it is the responsibility of the Army to ensure that no construction comes up in this area.

While the Army authorities maintained that since the civil administration held land records, it was responsible for ensuring that all encroachments were removed, but the civil administration felt that the commandant of the unit near the depot was responsible for removing encroachments.

Till date the Army has registered around 300 firs with the police against people who have made constructions in this 1000 yards area. The administration claims that to check these encroachments, it has issued orders to the Punjab State Electricity Board not to release fresh connections in this area.

During a visit to the notified area here today, TNS found that several constructions have come up and a few others are coming up. Around 1000 persons are residing here.

The ammunition depot here is one of the largest in the north and had come up here in 1958. The depot covers a radius of eight kilometres.

The people residing in this area had earlier urges the Army authorities to shift the depot to location but because of the huge costs of construction, land, air-conditioning of the depot and comouflaging, this was not considered.
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