Saturday, May 26, 2001, Chandigarh, India


M A I N   N E W S

Ammo fire doused, probe begins
Amarjit Thind
Tribune News Service

Suratgarh, May 25
A Court of Inquiry (CoI) has been ordered into the fire that broke out in the Birdhwal Field Ammunition Dump yesterday in which one soldier died and eight were injured. The injured are said to be out of danger and have given their statements to the Army and police authorities.

The Western Army Commander was among those who inspected the dump in the morning. He was led around by senior officers and shown the extent of damage. However, mediapersons were not allowed entry or given an opportunity to talk to him.

For a place that rained bombs, no civilian casualties have been reported from the affected villages so far, although seven head of cattle perished in the explosions. Some houses were found to be damaged and the authorities will compensate their owners. Village patwaris have been asked to forward the claim to be disbursed to their owners.

The inquiry team, comprising experts, is headed by a Major-General and began investigations at the accident site at 5 a.m. today. Its report is expected soon.

Suratgarh town heaved a collective sigh of relief when news about the fire having been brought under control spread. There were anxious moments yesterday when the rumour spread that the fire had spread and the entire town would have to be evacuated.

Traffic was restored on the busy Bikaner National Highway No. 15 at about 7 a.m. today while efforts are afoot to restore rail traffic on the Bikaner-Suratgarh and beyond section. A number of trains on this section were diverted.

The traffic could not be restored since some shells that landed on the railway track at six different places in the vicinity of Birdhwal have yet to be cleared by Army bomb disposal teams. Such teams in tandem with the police have fanned out to various villages and are destroying any live ammo. The services of the Home Guards too have been requisitioned for the purpose.

Squads of military personnel are guarding the places where the fields are strewn with used shell casings or jagged splinters. People are being turned back from their houses and fields and are being asked to stay put elsewhere till the arrival of disposal teams.

Hundreds of villagers who were ferried to various dharamshalas in Suratgarh were safely escorted to their homes in the morning as the clear signal was given, although the Army authorities have yet to give the all clear signal. As such, senior Army officers and the district administration are camping at Suratgarh.

While the officers were tightlipped about the causes of the fire and the quantum of damage caused, sources said the losses in terms of lives and equipment would have been higher had the fire spread to the main ammo dump which was saved with the timely intervention of the army authorities. The entire dump consists of plinths on which the ammunition has been stored, the sources revealed.

Senior officers of the Suratgarh Super Thermal Power Plant, the biggest in the state, could be seen pleading with the authorities to restore traffic on the Suratgarh section since it had affected power generation of the plant. A rake of coal is reportedly stranded at the Mahajan railway station since yesterday. Army officers could be seen assuring them that the needful would be done by this evening.

Addressing an impromptu gathering of mediapersons at an abandoned dhaba at this village, about 4 km from the dump, Brig M L Khanna said the fire started at 12 noon and had been controlled by 5 p.m. 


Army blames it on high temperature

New Delhi, May 25
The Army today said that the yesterday’s fire in an ammunition dump at Birdhwal near Suratgarh in Rajasthan was caused by high temperature.

The fire was caused due to high temperature and not any human error or other reasons, Vice Chief of Army Staff Lt-Gen Vijay Oberoi told newspersons here after addressing main body of Indian battalion group leaving on UN Mission to Ethiopia and Eritrea .

“We have still not been able to assess the loss due to the fire,” he said. The fire at the ammunition depot at Birdhwal is the third such incident in a year. General Oberoi said the Army was concerned about such incidents and a court of inquiry was studying the reasons of such fires.

He also held the infrastructure at many ammunition depots responsible for such accidents. “In many places the ammunition is kept in the open and there is an urgent need to build proper infrastructure to store it,” General Oberoi said. UNI

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