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Munitions blast kills 4 U.S. troops

Compiled from Times wires
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 16, 2002

WASHINGTON -- An explosion that killed four U.S. soldiers and left one wounded illustrates a daunting threat to American troops and their allies in Afghanistan: how to dispose of countless tons of munitions left over from more than 20 years of superpower conflict and civil war.

The soldiers were among 10 Army explosives experts who were disposing of a cache of Soviet-era 107mm rockets near Kandahar when the explosion occurred around noon local time Monday, said Maj. Ralph Mills, a spokesman for U.S. Central Command. The names of the dead and wounded were withheld pending notification of their next of kin.

The cause remains unclear. Mills said there are no indications that the soldiers were not following standard procedures.

The blast occurred at a demolition range next to the compound that once housed the former Taliban leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, local government spokesman Yusuf Pashtun said. Several U.S. special operations soldiers live in the compound.

"In this instance, it was a disposal unit that was actively working to destroy some weapons that had been found, and for whatever reason, one of them went off," Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said.

Mills said the soldiers killed and wounded in Monday's explosion were specialists in destroying caches of discarded weapons.

The wounded soldier was evacuated to a U.S. medical facility near Kandahar, said Marine Lt. Col. Dave Lapan, a Pentagon spokesman.

More than four months after the ouster of the Taliban and much of the al-Qaida network, Afghanistan remains awash in weapons and ammunition. They are a legacy in part of the 10-year Soviet occupation during the 1980s and the billions in military aid that the United States and its allies pumped into the country in an effort to help rebels drive the Soviets out.

Generally the munitions are exploded where they are found, such as in a cave, or they are collected and put in one place, usually a pit, and blown up in a controlled explosion. The process can be dangerous, especially when munitions have been stored in poor conditions or grown unstable with age. Both are common conditions in Afghanistan's stocks of Soviet rockets and ammunition.

Air Force Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the incident illustrates the dangers U.S. troops face even in nonhostile situations in the war-torn country.

"This tragic event highlights that even when not actively engaged against enemy forces, our servicemen and women remain at risk as they perform their mission around the world and particularly in Afghanistan," Myers said.

-- Information from Knight Ridder Newspapers, the Associated Press, the Washington Post and Cox News Service was used in this report.

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