COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) — A fire broke out at an army camp near Sri Lanka's capital, setting off explosions and damaging hundreds of nearby homes, officials said Monday. One soldier was killed.
It was not immediately clear what caused the fire Sunday night at the Salawa army camp, about 35 kilometers (22 miles) east of the capital, Colombo. Soldiers managed to douse the flames at the camp, but small blasts were still erupting at an ammunition depot and were expected to continue through Monday, military spokesman Brig. Jayanath Jayaweera said, adding that the explosions posed no threat.
The explosions sent shrapnel and munitions flying into the surrounding area, damaging hundreds of homes and a government hospital, and forcing thousands of people to evacuate, officials said.
One soldier was killed and eight other people were injured, including seven civilians, according to Health Ministry spokesman Nipuna Ekanayake. He said 39 other civilians were treated at a hospital for smoke inhalation before being released.
On Monday morning, shrapnel and mortar shells could be seen scattered in people's front yards. Local television channels and news websites showed videos and pictures of heavily damaged houses and vehicles.
"My house is almost completely destroyed," said hotel worker Menaka Madhushan, who fled the home when he heard the first explosions. "That decision saved our life."
He described a demolition scene where his home once stood — its roof now collapsed and the ground littered with debris and at least six artillery shells.
"It's clear those artilleries hit my house," the 30-year-old said. "I fear the house is beyond repair ... this is a huge loss for me."
At Wasantha Rupasingh's private photography studio half a kilometer (a quarter mile) from the camp, the glass windows and doors were "broken and shattered into pieces," he said.
He fled the area along with his wife and two children, aged 10 and 14, when the explosions started. The family slept in their car, which they parked on a remote road far from the site.
"We never thought this kind of thing would happen," said Rupasingh, 39. "I don't know what to do now. I fear my house is also destroyed by this. At the moment, all I can do is wait and see until they allow us to go and see our house."
Thousands of nearby residents who were evacuated from a 5-kilometer (3-mile) radius around the site Sunday night were being allowed to return to their homes on Monday, but many like Rupasingh with homes within a kilometer (half a mile) from the camp were being blocked until soldiers could check the area and declare it safe.
Minister of Law and Order Sagala Ratnayake said the fire started at a small arms depot and then spread to other depots where heavy weapons, such as artillery shells, were stored.