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Ecuadoreans Search for Missing Kin

November 21, 2002

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RIOBAMBA, Ecuador (AP) _ Hundreds of people, many with cuts on their faces and arms, wandered the provincial city of Riobamba in search of missing relatives Thursday after a series of explosions at an ammunition depot that left at least six people dead and 200 injured.

A large explosion, followed by several smaller ones, at the Galapagos Mechanized Army Base in the sedate, Andean city of 150,000 occurred Wednesday afternoon when a grenade accidentally detonated in the ammunition depot.

Fire and shock waves blew out windows a mile away.

``It was like an earthquake, windows blew out and the panic was irrepressible,″ Riobamba Mayor Fernando Guerrero said.

Riobamba, 100 miles south of the capital, Quito, is home to most of Ecuador’s tank units and about 1,500 soldiers.

The initial blast cut telephone and power lines. By nightfall rescuers were left in the dark to seek out survivors. People living near the base were evacuated.

Hundreds of people, many wearing makeshift bandages over injuries from glass shards, made their way toward the gates of the army base Thursday morning in search of loved ones inside.

Live hand grenades scattered by the explosions littered the street outside, and army Maj. Fidel Aruajo urged people not to pick up any explosives.

The streets for blocks around the base were covered with broken glass and metal fragments.

The Red Cross said six people, including two soldiers, had been killed and 200 others injured, most of them from glass shards.

The number of victims inside the base was not known because rescue teams were being held back by the danger that more munitions might explode, The Red Cross said in a statement, adding that buildings in the surrounding blocks were damaged.

Military patrols cruised the city for hours after the explosions began and as the city sank into darkness, asking people living near the base to evacuate the city.

Hundreds of people wandered the streets, looking for missing relatives and screaming each time a thunderous roar ripped from the base.

Many who lived near the base refused to evacuate until they learned what had happened to their loved ones, the paper reported.

``I thought it was an eruption of Tungurahua volcano and suddenly the doors and the windows blew out,″ said Jorge Nager, a retired military man who lives just across the street from the base.

Many people, including children, were taken to hospitals with cuts from flying glass, the Quito daily El Comercio reported.

At the Riobamba Policlinico, one of the city’s main hospitals, there were scenes of chaos as the injured were brought in. Hundreds of people arrived looking for injured relatives.

The waiting room was converted into an emergency room. To one side on a cot a young soldier was awaiting treatment for second degree burns over most of his body. He had difficulty talking but he told the paper that although he was far from the ammunition depot, the explosion threw him high into the air.

The incident came four days before a Nov. 24 runoff election for president. Former coup leader Lucio Gutierrez has led millionaire businessman Alvaro Noboa in recent polls. The winner will replace President Gustavo Noboa, who took office following a 2000 coup spearheaded by Gutierrez.