Locals up in arms over repeated evacuations near munitions depot

Munitions depot in Vrbětice, photo: CTK

The Czech authorities are still struggling to contain the situation at a munitions depot in eastern Moravia. After an initial explosion in October, more blasts occurred last week. Locals are up in arms after being forced to leave their homes, allowed to return, and then evacuated again.

Munitions depot in Vrbětice,  photo: CTK
Prime Minister Sobotka faced some tough questions during his visit to Slavičín, one of the villages threatened by the unstable situation at a nearby munitions depot.

The country’s National Security Council held an extraordinary session in the village on Saturday to address the ongoing threat. But the only decision was to increase the number of troops guarding the site, says Interior Minister Milan Chovanec.

“The protection of the site must be increased to make sure that no one enters it. That’s the main reason, to make local people feel safer.

“But I want to assure the public that we will not underestimate the investigation. We will do our utmost to ensure that in the end a concrete culprit is established who will also pay all the damages.”

Milan Chovanec,  photo: CTK
The first explosion at the munitions depot in Vrbětice occurred in mid-October, killing two employees and levelling much of the facility. However, secondary blasts prevented the transfer an estimated 7,000 tonnes of ammunition to a safe location.

Experts were just about to begin the process when another depot exploded on Thursday. Some 400 people from the surrounding villages were evacuated as a result. They were allowed to return home on Friday.

However, only a few hours later, even more people were evacuated as pyrotechnics experts found an artillery shell stuck in the roof of yet another storage facility. On Sunday, the locals returned to their homes as no further explosions had occurred.

Meanwhile, the blame game has intensified. The Czech army rented the site to a private firm, Imex Group, in 2011. Finance Minister Andrej Babiš says this should have never happened. Speaking to Czech TV on Sunday, Mr Babiš suggested the company had had similar problems in the past.

“The firm exported ammunitions to Bulgaria where it also exploded. The owner of the firm allegedly visited the site the night before the first blast.

Andrej Babiš,  photo: Filip Jandourek
“The next day, two employees arrived there and were killed. All experts say the second explosion could not have been a coincidence, and I believe them.”

In response, Imex Group said they would sue the finance minister over his remarks, and denied any responsibility for the blasts.

In Vrbětice, meanwhile, army experts are set to determine when the remaining ammunition can be taken away, a process anxiously awaited by the local communities.