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January 12, 2002
1555 IST
Updated at 1828 IST

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Fernandes suspects sabotage in Bikaner blasts

Defence Minister George Fernandes, who visited the site of Friday's explosions near an ammunition depot in Bikaner in Rajasthan, said a court of inquiry will look into all angles, including the possibility of sabotage, in the incident.

Fernandes, who was accompanied by Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot, said Gehlot too suspected sabotage.

A series of explosions in a convoy of trucks carrying tank ammunition to forward formations claimed two lives and destroyed 1000 tonnes of ammunition.

Fernandes and Gehlot spent over two hours going round the site, accompanied by top ordnance experts. They also visited some villages nearby.

According to initial reports, highly placed army sources in Bikaner said an electric spark in one of the 250 civil trucks hired to move heavy ammunition from Bhatinda in Punjab to Ganganagar-Bikaner frontier in northern Rajasthan had triggered massive explosions in the parked convoy gutting as many as 80 ammunition trucks.

The convoy was part of the movement orderded in connection with Operation Parakrama, as the current army mobilisation is codenamed.

The convoy was parked in an army cantonment bay for a short rest when a truck caught fire and the exploding ammunition engulfed all the nearby trucks.

Huge explosions echoed round the area with flames leaping as high as 60 to 70 feet sending hundreds of villagers living around the area fleeing in panic.

Top army and civil officials, who rushed to the spot, managed to get the 170 ammunition-laden trucks comprising the bulk of the convoy, to drive away to safety as fire tenders were pressed into service.

The sabotage theory has come to surface as the pattern in the mishap is the same as what happened near the Suratgarh ammunition depot last year, army officials said.

At Suratgarh, an army ammunition convoy carrying tank ammunition after the joint Indian Air Force and army exercise 'Operation Poorna Vijay' had caught fire gutting over 2000 rounds of ammunition.

A court of inquiry into the incident is yet to submit its report.

Friday's incident incidentally is the third major fire near a forward ammunition depot in the Ganaganagar-Pathankot-Bikaner belt.

A mysterious fire at Mamoon near Pathankot towards the end of 2000 had gutted large volumes of tank ammunition after conclusion of forward armoured exercises.

Security officials said there had been reports of intrusion by Pakistani agents in these border belts and over the past three years a number of arrests have been made.

PTI

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