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Публични страници : Интервю за The New York Times
на 2014/10/2 18:20:00
Публични страници

After Deadly Blast, Bulgaria Asks if Arms Disposal Is Worth It

Bulgarian Red Cross members with relatives of workers killed Wednesday in an explosion at a munitions-dismantling plan. Credit Vassil Donev/European Pressphoto Agency

The explosions were so powerful that they annihilated the factory, leaving behind little but two yawning craters. All 15 people in the building were killed, and a mourning nation was left to question its embrace of a perilous industry: the dismantling of obsolete munitions.

The explosions that wrecked the Midzhur plant in Gorni Lom, Bulgaria, about 90 miles from Sofia, the capital, on Wednesday were the latest in an increasingly deadly string of accidents at munitions-dismantling plants across the country. Workers were taking apart old Greek land mines when the first explosion occurred in the afternoon, and smaller blasts continued into the evening hours.

The site remained so dangerous on Thursday that rescue and recovery crews were not allowed to enter; instead, the government sent a team of experts with an armored vehicle into the blast zone to assess the damage, with unmanned surveillance drones flying overhead. What the experts saw were two craters, each the size of a football field, and debris scattered hundreds of feet away.

Boxes of ammunition were piled in a yard in the village of Gorni Lom, where the plant was. Fifteen people were killed. Credit Vassil Donev/European Pressphoto Agency

“Everything there looked just like a moonscape,” Valentin Radev, an industry expert who was part of the team, said in an interview. “The plant and the people have just vanished.”

Bulgaria, once a staunch Soviet ally, joined NATO and the European Union after the fall of communism, but it has struggled economically and remains among the poorest countries in Europe. Against that backdrop, the industry that sprang up to deal with the large quantities of aging munitions left over from the Cold War has been a welcome source of jobs — but one plagued by safety problems.

It is also a part of a global trend that has seen the number of accidents at ammunition depots rise “dramatically” in the last 35 years, according to the Small Arms Survey, a research group in Geneva.

In Bulgaria, a series of explosions in 2008 at an arms disposal depot just outside Sofia shook the city like an earthquake, registering 3.2 magnitude on seismographs and panicking thousands of residents; three people were injured. In June 2012, three people were killed at an explosives facility near Sliven in the east. Two previous explosions at the Midzhur plant, in 2007 and 2010, injured six people, and two buildings were flattened in the 2010 blast.

Similarly, a huge 2008 explosion at a plant in Albania, where inexperienced villagers were pulling apart old artillery shells with their bare hands, killed 26 people and created a shock wave that damaged the country’s main international airport a short drive away.

The specific cause of the devastating blast in Gorni Lom on Wednesday was not immediately known, but President Rosen Plevneliev of Bulgaria said Thursday that “arrogant nonobservance” of safety rules and regulations were to blame for the deaths at the plant.

“Unfortunately, this is not the first time, but yet another case which takes the lives of workers that dismantle ammunition,” Mr. Plevneliev said in a statement.

The government declared that Friday would be a day of national mourning. The country’s major political parties said they would suspend campaigning for the day; the country is due to hold a general election on Sunday.

The labor ministry said on Thursday that an inspection of the plant two months ago found outdated equipment, improperly stored explosives and more munitions at the site than it could safely handle, in defiance of regulations.

The labor minister, Yordan Hristoskov, vowed Thursday that the plant, which employed about 150 people, would never reopen. But workers protested, saying they had no other means of making a living.

Montana Province, where the plant is, has one of the highest unemployment rates in Bulgaria — 21 percent in July, according to the most recent government statistics. Mr. Hristoskov said workers at the plant were paid about 240 leva, or $154, a month — meager even for Bulgaria.

Mr. Radev, the expert who visited the blast zone, is a former defense official who now serves as chairman of a trade association for ammunition specialists. He said that “accidents like this are not a Bulgarian patent — they happen in other countries in the region and beyond, every year.”

According to the Small Arms Survey, accidental explosions have been reported at a rate of 26.8 a year since 2010, up considerably from the 4.3 a year reported in the 1980s, before the Cold War ended. Russia alone has had 66 accidents since 1979, killing more than 400 people; the United States has had 19 in that period, with four deaths. Wednesday’s accident in Bulgaria was the country’s 10th since 1979.

Still, Bulgaria badly needs economic success stories, and orders for munitions disposal keep coming in from Bulgaria’s Balkan neighbors, like Greece, and from as far away as Indonesia, Mr. Radev said.

“During the Cold War, Bulgaria specialized in the production of ammunition and small arms, and there are a lot of qualified people out there,” he said. “It is still a big business for Bulgaria, one that is now becoming more and more deadly.”

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