Consequences still resonate three months after Gerdec blast
Although the people in Gerdec, Albania, have begun to rebuild their homes and move on, the March 15th blast in the town is still fresh in everyone’s minds. The explosion is still causing turmoil in Albanian politics.
By Manjola Hala for Southeast European Times in Tirana — 23/06/08
The blast killed 26 people, and caused 16.6m euros worth of damage. [Getty Images]
Efforts to dismantle Albania’s stockpiles of obsolete munitions took a catastrophic turn on March 15th, when a series of explosions occurred as crews were clearing out a storage depot in Gerdec, near Tirana. The explosions lasted nearly 14 hours, resulted in 26 deaths, over 300 injuries, thousands of homeless and 16.6m euros worth of damage.
Investigations into the tragedy have focused on what caused the explosion and who is responsible.
The final report of US experts, who assisted the Albanian team to investigate the causes of the accident, says that the demolition process was carried out in unsafe working conditions — the factory was very small and inappropriate for demilitarization of ammunition.
“According to estimates, the explosion was so strong that it could be compared to a nuclear explosion,” said President Bamir Topi.
Gerdec looks now like a construction site with houses being re-built and a number of tents for shelter. The exploded hill has started to show its first signs of life with sparse grass and plant regrowth.
Alongside the few newly reconstructed houses there are many others being rebuilt with funds from the government or by Gerdec inhabitants themselves.
Former Defence Minister Fatmir Mediu resigned days after the blast. [Getty Images]
“Some of the families managed to rebuild their houses very soon after the tragedy,” said Gerdec resident Agim, who is working on his house with his family and friends. “Relatives or children working abroad helped them financially. I personally borrowed the money needed for the reconstruction; I could not live anymore in a tent. As soon as I receive the financial compensation, I will repay it.”
However, officials in the Vora municipality, the entity responsible for distributing compensation and other economic assistance to the damaged families, say that the funds for reconstruction have all be distributed.
As of June 10th, the finance ministry had delivered 90% of the 13m euros allocated by the government, according to the ministry’s press office. On June 12th, the Council of Ministers issued a final decision on compensation funds, adding an additional 7.5m euros for rebuilding the business sector and for the inhabitants of Manze and Marikaj, which were also damaged in the blasts.
However, despite the compensation, most of those affected by the tragedy are upset with the government’s dealing with the situation. At the beginning of June, people sheltered at the interior ministry employees’ resort in Durres started protesting against the ministry’s decision to relocate them to rental homes.
Many families in the area have refused to relocate, despite the contamination. The UN group that visited Gerdec in late March estimated that the level of contamination near the exploded hill is high due to two missile radioactive elements. Still, many residents have set up tents near the hill, and refuse relocation.
Accommodation is not the only problem that caused dissatisfaction among people damaged by Gerdec blast. In mid May, claims regarding unfair assessment of damaged buildings caused an investigation for possible bribery cases. After questioning the 15 working groups established for assessing public and private buildings, the state prosecution decided to start investigations of four individuals and their methods of assessing the damages.
The former workers at the Gerdec army depot have gone on hunger strike. They accuse the government of not properly handling the situation, and are asking for financial compensation for the wounded and the families that suffered as a result of the blast.
Residents leave their destroyed houses in Memlisht after the weapons depot exploded. [Getty Images]
Five people have been arrested in connection with the blasts, and on Monday (June 16th), parliament lifted the immunity of former Defence Minister Fatmir Mediu based on the general prosecutor’s allegation of abuse of power. Mediu resigned days after the explosion.
The prosecution says that an investigation into the matter shows that Mediu’s “actions and inactions” broke a series of laws and procedures on security standards. They say there were illegal orders appointing Gerdec as the place for the site of the munitions demolition, and other orders to the army to transport the munitions to Gerdec that could have been the result of bribery.
Mediu denies any wrongdoing and did not comment on the parliament’s decision. “As a defense minister I respected the law [and] considered disposing of excess ammunition a national priority,” he told the parliamentary session.
Topi has also relieved Army Chief of Staff Lieutenant General Luan Hoxha from duty. Presidential spokeswoman Mimoza Kociu said that the decision followed a recommendation from Prime Minister Sali Berisha.
Seven other defense ministry officials and managers of the private company disposing of the ammunition have been arrested on charges of negligence. About 100,000 tons of excess ammunition, mostly Russian and Chinese artillery shells made in the 1960s or earlier, are stored in former army depots across Albania. The country has pledged to dispose of the ammunition by 2010, and is receiving assistance from the US, Canada and other NATO countries.
Southeast European Times correspondent Jonilda Koci contributed to this report.
This content was commissioned for SETimes.com
American Envoy Is Linked to Arms Deal Cover-Up
WASHINGTON — An American ambassador helped cover up the illegal Chinese origins of ammunition that a Pentagon contractor bought to supply Afghan security forces, according to testimony gathered by Congressional investigators.
Before testifying, from left: Mitchell Howell of the Defense Contract Management Agency; Brig. Gen. William N. Phillips; and Jeffrey P. Parsons of the Army Contracting Command.
A military attaché has told the investigators that the United States ambassador to Albania endorsed a plan by the Albanian defense minister to hide several boxes of Chinese ammunition from a visiting reporter. The ammunition was being repackaged to disguise its origins and shipped from Albania to Afghanistan by a Miami Beach arms-dealing company.
The ambassador, John L. Withers II, met with the defense minister, Fatmir Mediu, hours before a reporter for The New York Times was to visit the American contractor’s operations in Tirana, the Albanian capital, according to the testimony. The company, under an Army contract, bought the ammunition to supply Afghan security forces although American law prohibits trading in Chinese arms.
The attaché, Maj. Larry D. Harrison II of the Army, was one of the aides attending the late-night meeting, on Nov. 19, 2007. He told House investigators that Mr. Mediu asked Ambassador Withers for help, saying he was concerned that the reporter would reveal that he had been accused of profiting from selling arms. The minister said that because he had gone out of his way to help the United States, a close ally, “the U.S. owed him something,” according to Major Harrison.
Mr. Mediu ordered the commanding general of Albania’s armed forces to remove all boxes of Chinese ammunition from a site the reporter was to visit, and “the ambassador agreed that this would alleviate the suspicion of wrongdoing,” Major Harrison said, according to his testimony.
Investigators interviewed Major Harrison by telephone on June 9, and the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee made excerpts of the transcript public on Monday.
At the time of the meeting, the company, AEY Inc., was under investigation for illegal arms trafficking involving Chinese ammunition.
On Friday, the president of the company, Efraim E. Diveroli, 22, and three others were charged with selling prohibited Chinese ammunition to the Pentagon that they said was made in Albania.
On March 27, The New York Times published an article that said Albanian documents showed that the Miami company had bought more than 100 million Chinese cartridges that were stored for decades in former cold war stockpiles.
Mr. Diveroli arranged to have them repacked in cardboard boxes, many of which split or decomposed after shipment to the war zones, according to the article. Different lots or types of ammunition were mixed. In some cases the ammunition was dirty, corroded or covered with a film.
The repackaging operation, carried out by an AEY subcontractor at the Rinas Airport in Tirana, has become the focus of the Congressional investigation.
According to the transcript excerpts released by the committee, Major Harrison told investigators that he did not agree with the decision to hide the boxes from the reporter, and said that he felt “very uncomfortable” during the meeting.
Major Harrison, who as the chief of the embassy’s office of defense cooperation was responsible for helping American efforts to train, equip and modernize Albania’s military, said that his suggestion to bar the reporter from visiting the Albania base was rejected.
In a letter to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the committee’s chairman, Representative Henry A. Waxman, Democrat of California, said Monday that there were signs that embassy officials in Tirana tried to cover up the November meeting once Mr. Waxman’s staff began an investigation into the arms company. The letter said the committee would seek to interview Mr. Withers and other embassy personnel.
Attempts to reach Mr. Withers through the United States Embassy in Tirana were met with a request to refer all questions to Washington.
But a senior State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the ongoing criminal inquiry into AEY, said he had spoken Monday to Mr. Withers, who adamantly denied Major Harrison’s statement.
The senior official said the committee had never interviewed Mr. Withers or other top embassy personnel, and released the information on Monday to fan interest in a committee hearing on the company’s business dealings scheduled for Tuesday.
A State Department spokesman, Tom Casey, told reporters on Monday that the department was reviewing Mr. Waxman’s letter, which included Major Harrison’s statements.
“We have no information that would support the idea that U.S. officials were involved in some kind of illicit activity,” Mr. Casey said. “But obviously, again, any allegations made, certainly any questions raised, by the chairman of a major committee in Congress, is something that we will be happy to look into.”
Mr. Withers, a Foreign Service officer for 24 years, has been ambassador to Albania since July 2007. He has also served in Latvia, Nigeria, Russia and The Hague. His father, John L. Withers Sr., is a former director of the Agency for International Development.
Army Awarded Contract, Unaware of Dealer’s Past
WASHINGTON — When the Army last year awarded a contract worth up to nearly $300 million to a tiny Miami Beach munitions dealer to supply ammunition to Afghanistan’s security forces, it overlooked a very checkered past.
Ish-ministri Mediu e Delijorgji, vila fqinje në Malin e Robit
18:44 Shtetrrethim në Malin e Robit pas publikimt në media të lajmit të dy vilave te Delijorgjit dhe Mediut. Kamera e “News24” arrin të filmojë dy vilat luksoze në vlerë qindra milionë lekë të dy të akuzuarve kryesorë të tragjedisë së Gërdecit në një prej zonave më të bukura të Adriatikut. Ndërkohë vila e ish-ministrit të Mbrojtjes është e pa rregjistruar në hipotekë.