( Reuter )- Albanian troops searched through rubble on Sunday for survivors of a huge munitions blast that razed an army base near the capital Tirana and killed at least nine people.
At least nine were still missing. More than 240 people were injured in the string of blasts at a base stocking obsolete munitions for destruction. Most suffered burns, broken limbs, or cuts from flying glass and shrapnel.
A Reuters reporter saw a ravaged landscape strewn with debris from blown-out buildings. The blast had made craters, some 50 meters in diameter and 20 meters deep.
In the nearby village of Gerdec, several homes stood only as skeletons, the bricks around their concrete pillars shattered and the red roof tiles were blown all over the hillside. The shockwave uprooted shrubs and cut olive trees down to stumps.
Denis Muka, whose family owns a local restaurant, described how 100 wedding guests were listening to a speech by the mother of the bride when the blast wave unhinged the doors and windows and sent shards of glass flying.
"We thought it was an earthquake at first," the 20-year-old said, brown blotches of dried blood showing through his bandages. "All of us were thrown to the ground, my head was bleeding and I thought I wouldn't manage to get up."
Some 4,000 people were evacuated from the area. More than 300 buildings were destroyed and almost 2,000 were damaged.
Thousands of big and small artillery shells, some unexploded, still littered the fields. Chickens and dogs lay dead, struck by shrapnel.
Prime Minister Sali Berisha visited the area and appealed for calm, reassuring the evacuated residents that rescue efforts would not stop until the missing had been accounted for.
"We have started a search and rescue operation," Berisha said. "I promise you we'll do our best."
The initial blasts were so powerful they were felt as tremors in the capital Tirana, some 20 km away. Small cracking explosions were still going on 18 hours later.
The explosions began when workers were moving stocks of old Chinese and Soviet shells stored at the base, a collection point for the arsenal amassed by a communist-era dictatorship preparing for an invasion that never came.
Albania has been trying for years to dismantle the obsolete stock, estimated at 100,000 tonnes, set as one of the conditions for joining NATO. It hopes for an invitation in April.
Berisha said he believed the membership bid would not be affected by the accident. He denied the government was responsible, saying the dismantling was handled by a private U.S. company, which also chose the site.
Local media have reported that untrained men and women from the area, even teenagers, worked at the plant for small wages.
"I ask prosecutors to investigate thoroughly the causes of this devastating tragedy," President Bamir Topi told reporters.