An intense series of explosions and a fast-moving fire ripped through an ammunition depot in Ukraine, prompting the evacuation of thousands of people and igniting suspicions of sabotage in a country mired in a simmering war with Russia-backed separatists.
Authorities said about 12,000 people were evacuated from their homes after the blaze and blasts began before dawn on October 9 at the munitions dump near the Chernihiv region town of Ichnya, some 180 kilometers east of Kyiv.
Regional authorities said 63 people came to hospitals, saying they felt ill after inhaling smoke, but a Defense Ministry statement said no civilians or military personnel were injured or killed.
"As of 7 a.m. [local time], the intensity of explosions is two to three explosions per second," it said.
The country's Security Service (SBU) said in a statement that the military prosecutor's office in central Ukraine launched an investigation on suspicion of negligence, but that the SBU is considering all possible causes including sabotage.
A deputy chief of the Armed Forces General Staff, Major General Rodion Tymoshenko, said he suspects sabotage, though he did not point to a possible culprit.
"There were two simultaneous explosions first and they were followed by two other explosions on the other side of the depot. The explosions caused the fire," Tymoshenko told reporters in Kyiv.
"The intensity of the explosions in different parts of the depot indicate that it was most likely a sabotage," he said.
The emergency services said in a statement that authorities temporarily closed the airspace in a 30-kilometer radius around the site, as well as rail and road traffic.
The fire and explosions began at around 3:30 a.m. local time at the Defense Ministry's depot No. 6, which covers about 700 hectares, a statement said.
Prime Minister Volodymyr Hroysman and the head of the country’s armed forces, Viktor Muzhenko, traveled to the site.
Muzhenko said that "appropriate restrictive measures" were being introduced across the Chernihiv region.
There have been several explosions and fires at Ukrainian arms depots in recent years, amid fighting between government forces and the Russia-backed separatists who hold parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, a few hundred kilometers southeast of the depot site.
The war has killed more than 10,300 people since it began after Russia seized Crimea and fomented separatism following the ouster of Moscow-friendly Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, who fled in the face of months of pro-European protests in Kyiv.
Cease-fire deals signed in Belarus’s capital, Minsk, in September 2014 and February 2015, have failed to end the conflict.
In March 2017, a massive conflagration at a munitions depot near the eastern city of Kharkiv prompted the evacuation of about 20,000 residents living within a 20-kilometer radius of the site.
And in September 2017, more than 30,000 people were evacuated after artillery warehouses on a military installation exploded in the Vinnytsya region, southwest of Kyiv.
Authorities have frequently blamed the blasts on sabotage, and the government has allocated 100 million hryvnyas ($3.6 million) for protection of the country's ammunition storage facilities.
After the fires in 2017, a parliamentary defense committee inspected other depots and said that there were "significant" shortcomings in the way the site near Ichnya was managed, according to a lawmaker on the committee, Dmytro Tymchuk.
In a post on Facebook, Tymchuk said that he had sent a document to the heads of the Defense Ministry and the General Staff of the Armed Forces that "listed the shortcomings" and included "a request to intervene in the situation and solve existing problems."
With reporting by Reuters, UNIAN, and Ukrayinska Pravda