Sunday, January 13, 2002, Chandigarh, India


M A I N   N E W S

Sabotage possible, says Fernandes
Surveys Udasar ammunition depot fire

Bikaner, January 12
Defence Minister George Fernandes today did not rule out sabotage as a reason for the fire that destroyed nearly 70 ammunition-laden trucks at Udasar near here last night, Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot said.

“I talked with Mr Fernandes while he was returning to Delhi after surveying the scene. The Defence Minister agreed that sabotage cannot be ruled out,’’ Mr Gehlot told reporters here.

The Chief Minister, however, added that one should not indulge in guesswork about the possible causes and trade charges over responsibility as it was a sensitive defence matter.

“It is necessary to probe various such incidents in the country to reach a conclusion,’’ he said.

Laxity during loading of ammunition and a lighted stove were among the theories doing the rounds for the fire at the temporary ordnance sub-depot, about 10 km from here.

Nearly 70 explosives-laden trucks, out of 235 brought here from Bathinda, Punjab, were said to have been destroyed in the fire. Some sources said double that number had been damaged.

Army sources in Delhi, however, contested this claim and insisted that only 50 were affected in the chain reaction and 150 trucks had been taken to safety.

JAIPUR: Earlier, Defence Minister George Fernandes and Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot today surveyed the damage caused by a fire that swept through a convoy of ammunition-laden trucks of the Army at Udasar in the district of Rajasthan.

The number of casualties or the scene at Udasar, 10 km from Bikaner, was not known as the security agencies had sealed off the area.

Two persons were killed and 12 injured when flying missiles hit buildings in Bikaner. Rocket-like objects had fallen at a few other parts of the district also.

Police sources said the blaze was controlled at around 0400 hrs today. Sources in Bikaner said the last explosion was at around 0130 hrs. A huge ball of fire was seen rising to the sky.

Mr Fernandes arrived at the Nal Air strip close to the town in the morning and took a helicopter for an aerial survey of the scene. He then met senior Army officials for an explanation about the tragedy.

The Defence Minister spent around two hours at Udasar and Nal before leaving for Delhi by a special Air Force plane.

The Army has announced an ex-gratia of Rs 50,000 to the families of each of the two civilians killed.

Mr Gehlot also surveyed the scene and directed the district authorities to assess damages caused to civilians. Sources said he announced an ex-gratia of Rs 20,000 for the family of a government employee killed due to the fire. The deceased employee’s son would be given a government job.

The seriously injured in the incident would receive Rs 10,000 each from the Chief Minister’s Relief Fund while those with minor injuries would be paid Rs 5,000 each.

Many civilian truck drivers, hired to transport the load to the western front, fled with their vehicle keys as the first blast rocked the area.

Soldiers fought off the blaze with sand scooped out of the earth in this desert state. Officials who had returned from the scene described it as a mass of twisted steel and blackened earth. Smoke was reportedly still coming out of the place.

Even the Chief Minister was shown the area from a safe distance of 500 yards. Mr Gehlot visited PBM Hospital here and met the injured. He also went to Army Hospital at Udasar and met injured soldiers, whose number was not known.

Electricity supply to Udasar, cut off since yesterday, was restored this morning.

The government has ordered a court of inquiry into the fire.

Security was tightened at the Army fuel and lubricant depot and Air Force Radar station at Udasar after the incident.

Sources claimed many buildings and a store had also been gutted at the depot.

Some of these shells landed in civilian areas in a 10-15 km radius. Nearly 50 such incidents were reported in this city alone, where people panicked and a few injured themselves in the process.

Ten fire tenders were rushed from Churu, Jhunjhunu, Hanumangarh, Sriganganagar and Nagore districts to supplement the district fire fighting force and that of the Air Force, the Army and the Railways.

Nearly 3000 persons had been evacuated to safer places last night from a six square-km belt around Udasar. Over 5,000 families of Army personnel were evacuated from the depot to safety after the first warning siren.

Rajasthan Inspector General of Police (Law and Order) A.K. Jain said people had been sent back to their homes after the situation improved this morning. The fire had been put off, he said. UNI

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