COLOMBO: Flying shrapnel triggered by explosions at an ammunition depot on the edge of Sri Lanka´s capital Colombo sent thousands of residents scrambling for cover as the blaze turned the skies orange Monday.
At least one soldier burnt to death, seven more people were injured and about 40 residents were treated for smoke inhalation, police said.
The army said the worst ammunition depot fire in Sri Lanka´s history had been extinguished around 12 hours after it started at sundown at the Salawa military complex, setting off explosions that went on through the night.
“The fire has been put out, but still there are intermittent explosions,” army spokesman Jayanath Jayaweera told AFP. “That is why we are asking residents to keep away.”
Soon after the initial fire on Sunday, thousands of people living within six kilometres (3.75 miles) were ordered to leave their homes and move to schools and temples as a safety precaution.
By Monday morning, the authorities said it was safe for people living more than one kilometre from the camp to return to their homes.
Jayaweera asked residents returning to their homes to report any unexploded ordnance that may have landed in their compounds.
Businessman Neville Nishantha, 44, said he fled with his wife and three children as the ammunition depot started exploding. He returned on Monday morning to see his house in ruins.
“A mortar bomb had gone through my roof and hit the living room,” Nishantha told AFP. “A wall collapsed in the bedroom where my three children would have slept.”
“We are lucky to have escaped. All of us started running as the explosions began.”
Shortly after the first blasts, residents in Salawa were seen leaving in droves as police shut the main highway after shrapnel fell on it too.
The night sky was bright with an orange glow as huge fires raged and the area continued to shake every few minutes. Flying debris could be seen from three kilometres (two miles) away, an AFP photographer said.
This was the second time in three weeks that residents of Colombo were forced to leave their homes. Last month, some 200,000 residents in the capital were driven out of their homes by floods caused by the Kelani river bursting its banks.
The Salawa military complex, just by the Kelani river, is located at a former plywood factory about 36 kilometres east of Colombo. It is used by the army to store heavy weaponry and ammunition, including rockets.
“Pretty chaotic scenes on the road,” Deputy Foreign Minister Harsha de Silva, who was travelling in the area on Sunday night, said on Twitter.
“I am estimating that thousands are evacuating.”
Government spokesman Rajitha Senaratne said the national security council would meet on Monday to review the blast.
“This is a military matter and they must investigate if this was an accident or sabotage,” said Senaratne who is also the health minister.
Law and Order Minister Sagala Ratnayake said the police´s Criminal Investigation Department (CID) had also been asked to look into the cause of the explosions.
“Our priority is to save lives,” Ratnayake told reporters on Sunday night. “But we have already asked the CID to investigate.”
He said the fire had spread quickly to two ammunition depots within the military complex and emergency responders initially struggled to extinguish it because they could not reach the source.
Officials declared Monday a holiday for nearby schools and government offices.
The explosion was the worst at a military installation since the end of Sri Lanka´s decades-long Tamil separatist war in May 2009.
In June 2009, there was a similar, but a much less intense explosion at an army ammunition storage facility in the northern district of Vavuniya, 250 kilometres north of Colombo, leaving several soldiers injured.
Government forces crushed Tamil Tiger rebels in a no-holds-barred military campaign that also triggered allegations of up to 40,000 ethnic Tamil civilians being killed in government bombardments.