Crossroads Asia

Fire, Explosions at Ammunition Depot in Southern Kazakhstan Trigger Evacuation

The incident is not the first to send smoke and shells into the air outside Arys, Kazakhstan.

Catherine Putz
Fire, Explosions at Ammunition Depot in Southern Kazakhstan Trigger Evacuation
Credit: Screengrab

A fire engulfed a sprawling ammunition depot in Kazakhstan on Monday, causing powerful explosions that killed two, injured at least 46, and forced the evacuation of tens of thousands.

The explosion at the depot near the town of Arys in southern Kazakhstan’s Turkestan region was the fourth such incident in the last decade.

As RFE/RL’s Kazakh Service  reported, Prime Minister Askar Mamin said the two people killed in the series of blasts were a local civilian and a military officer. Defense Minister Nurlan Ermekbayev said a fire broke out at the depot early on Monday morning.

The cause of the fire has not yet been determined. Authorities say a criminal probe has been launched, with President Kassym-Jormart Tokayev pledging that those responsible would be “prosecuted under the law.” Tokayev visited the region late on Monday, meeting with some injured residents.

Incidents in 2009, 2014, and 2015 were blamed on negligence and a failure to observe safety regulations, according to Reuters. There were at least two incidents at ammunition depots in Kazakhstan in 2009: an explosion on March 20, 2009 at a KazArsenal warehouse outside of Arys, killing two; and another one June 9, at a border service military unit north of Almaty. In the case of the March 2009 incident, reports indicate that company management were punished for the blasts. In 2014, an explosion occurred on June 27 at a munitions disposal depot outside Arys killing two. According to a contemporary Tengrinews report, that facility was operated by Kazakhvzryvprom.

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The governor of Turkestan, Umirzak Shukeyev, announced a state of emergency on Monday and the state ordered the evacuation of Arys’ population of 45,000. It’s unclear when the people of Arys will be able to return to their homes. Unexploded ammunition, potentially thrown from the depot in the blasts, makes the town into a veritable minefield.

“The scale [of fires] is very large and this could go on for a few days,” Shukeyev told reporters.

Wild footage of the explosion has flitted through social media channels. Loud blasts and the whistling of ammunition can be heard as smoke rises from the depot and people flee the area on foot and by car. Police and military personnel reportedly stopped cars to load additional passengers into fleeing vehicles.

Authorities in Kazakhstan also halted railway traffic in the area following the explosions, which were powerful enough to be registered by the nation’s seismic service and seen from space.

With reporting from the Associated Press.