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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Troops Battle Lethal Urals Depot Fire

Soldiers and civil defense troopers continued Thursday to battle blazes around a ravaged army depot in the Urals as prosecutors cast doubt on local officials' claim that the lethal inferno was caused by a bolt of lightning.

The fire broke out Wednesday afternoon, triggering explosions that blew up at least half of the depot's munitions and shattered windows and chimneys of nearby houses. By late Thursday, 14 servicemen were reported dead and 17 injured. Another man was listed as missing after disappearing while trying to fight the blaze.

President Boris Yeltsin sent his condolences to the relatives of the dead servicemen. The soldiers "made heroic efforts putting out two explosions," but many of them "perished in the third one," said a solemn Yeltsin, who hails from the Sverdlovsk region where the blast happened.

Local military officials stood by their earlier claim that the explosion was triggered by a natural phenomenon. "It was ball lightning," Yevgeny Zinko, duty officer at the Urals Military District command center, said when asked what had caused the fire.

Russian army munitions depots are equipped with lightning conductors but have no protection against ball lightning, a rare phenomenon that can reportedly creep through open windows and doors, according to Lieutenant Colonel Ashot Airapetyan, a veteran military engineer.

However, Sergei Ushakov, a spokesman for the Military Prosecutor's Office, said he had little faith in the explanations provided by local military officials. Asked whether the prosecutor's office held the view that the incident was an act of God, he replied, "I don't think so."

Every year hundreds of servicemen are charged with pilfering armaments from military depots and, according to Ushakov's office, more than half of Russia's conventional arsenals are inadequately guarded due to a lack of cash.

In recent years, several cases have been brought to court in which serviceman have set fire to depots to conceal the theft of ammunition.

The depot, which stored 250 tons of ammunition and 100 tons of ammonium and TNT, is located in a thickly forested area of Sverdlovsk region, some 1,600 kilometers east of Moscow.

By Thursday, the blaze, which gutted the territory of the depot and consumed 200 hectares of surrounding forest, was localized. Firefighters used an Ilyushin Il-76 plane to douse the blaze with water.

Most of the 3,000 local residents who were evacuated from nearby villages Wednesday were allowed to return home. Police and soldiers had encircled the evacuated villages to prevent looting.

"The situation is under control," Nikolai Zavalishin, chief of the administration at Losinoye, the closest settlement, said in a telephone interview.

Zavalishin said electricity and water supplies have already been restored to Losinoye, where 150 square meters of window glass were blown out and several chimneys brought down by shock waves. The official said damages will be calculated by the end of the week.

By Thursday night, a specially equipped tank was sweeping mines and explosives at the depot, and army engineers were expected to move in on foot later this week. Local officials said they did not think the depot's personnel could be held responsible for the accident.

"We don't blame the military for anything," said an aide to Berezovsky settlement administration chief Vladimir Perepyolkin who declined to identify himself. "Lighting is lightning."

Meanwhile, local meteorologists and civil defense officials said more thunderstorms are expected to hit the Sverdlovsk region, including the area surrounding the depot.

"We are praying that rain will come instead of thunderstorms" to put out the remaining fires, said Viktor Durnev, spokesman for the region's civil defense troops.