Fireworks blast kills at least 17 in Pakistan

Wednesday, February 5, 2003

SIALKOT, Pakistan -- Shipping containers full of fireworks caught fire and exploded Tuesday, blowing in walls of a nearby school and raining fiery debris on surrounding buildings.

At least 17 people were killed, including two children.

Dozens of others were injured in the blasts at a trucking depot near the town of Sialkot as the fireworks were being placed in two containers for shipment to Lahore, 60 miles to the southwest.

Officials said the fireworks had been falsely listed on shipping documents as children's toys, but said they didn't yet know what sparked the explosions.

Shopkeeper Attiqur Rahman said he saw bodies "flying in the air" at the explosion site and found six or seven children pinned under a collapsed wall in the compound of the Awami Public School.

Basharat Ali, who lives in the village of Zafarwal, about a half mile from the site of the explosion, said he was at home when he heard a "huge bang."

"It was as if an enemy had attacked the city. Explosions continued one after the other and the villagers rushed out of their homes thinking they had been attacked," Ali said.

At his three-room home, relatives mourned over the body of Mohammed Yasin, 17, a 10th grader, whose father said he was killed by flying pieces from one of the metal shipping containers.

"I cannot bear the loss. I wanted to see him a great man. I do not know what happened," his father Rehmat Ali, 65, said through tears.

Yasin's funeral was planned for Wednesday in Zafarwali village, about two miles north of the school. Another boy killed in the school, Mohammed Adnan, 14, was buried Tuesday evening.

The depot, about eight miles west of Sialkot, was directly adjacent to the school, separated by a wall. Man-size holes were blown in a surrounding wall and walls to a school office also toppled.

Customs officials had opened the container and were checking its contents when the explosions began, said the depot's general manager, Salim Sheikh. A customs inspector was among those killed, he said.

Sheikh ruled out terrorism as a cause of the blast.

"It might be some mishap," he told The Associated Press.

A spokesman for Pakistan's Interior Ministry, Iftikhar Ahmad, said police were attempting to trace those who shipped the fireworks, listed on the manifest as plastic bullets for toy guns imported from the United Arab Emirates.

Brig. Javed Iqbal Cheema, the director general of the crisis management center at the Interior Ministry, confirmed 17 people had been killed.

Hospital officials in Sialkot said at least seven of the injured were in critical condition, three with serious burns.

It was not clear what caused the fireworks to go off, but authorities said they would investigate.

Lahore, the main city in eastern Pakistan, is a central marketplace for the sale of fireworks in the country, and traders bring the material from all over. The government has tried, unsuccessfully, to crack down on the trade.

In June 2001, an explosion at a private house used for making fireworks killed eight people in a poor section of Lahore.

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