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24 killed in apartment blast in Ukraine


Kiev : An explosion in a Ukrainian block of flats killed at least 24 people and left dozens buried, officials said Thursday.

The blast took place Wednesday evening in a Soviet-era five-storey prefabricated concrete building in Evpatoria, on the Black Sea shore of Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula.

More dead were likely to be discovered as rescue workers had only picked through the top two floors of the fallen building, and debris from remains of three more floors remained to be inspected, Eduard Hrivovsky, a ministry for emergency situations spokesman, said.

Two staircases that led to some 30 flats completely collapsed in the blast. Twenty-one survivors had been pulled to safety, including two children. One of the dead was a child.

Rescuers said they could still hear residents calling for help from under the rubble. Four victims with severe to critical injuries were hospitalised, the Interfax news agency reported.

Rescue crews said they did not want to use heavy lifting equipment near possible survivor locations for fear of putting victims at risk.

But seven cranes and more than 550 emergency crew were at work lifting debris at the accident site, said Anatoly Hritsenko, a Crimea province politician.

There were officially 62 residents of the building, but several flats had been sub-let.

Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko broke off a normal work day to travel to Evpatoria and supervise rescue efforts. He announced that Friday would be observed as a day of national mourning.

All the survivors would receive food and shelter provided by the government as well as financial help from a $10-million emergency fund, said Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who also travelled to the site.

Relatives of the dead would receive $13,000 each, she added.

Early reports from the accident scene suggested the explosion was caused because of residents tapping natural gas lines, or operating gas heaters unsafely, in an attempt to keep their apartments warm.

A gas main failure was not the cause of the explosion, and evidence collected by emergency workers so far pointed to a detonation of gas cylinders containing an explosive material, and stacked in the building’s bottom floor, Ukraine Emergency Situations Minister Volodymyr Shandra said.

Gas explosions in residential buildings are a regular occurrence in Ukraine during the winter.