Peace Time: Cold War Returns With a Bloody Bang

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April 3, 2007: On March 22nd, a little bit of the Cold War returned, with a series of large explosions in Maputo, the capital of the African nation of Mozambique. A 23 year old munitions storage area, next to international airport, blew up. Well, parts of if blew up, and nearly 400 casualties resulted, including 93 dead. Some twenty tons of munitions are believed to have exploded. Most of the casualties occurred outside the munitions depot, when explosions tossed unexploded shells into the residential slums that had grown up over the years. There, many of these shells went off.

The depot was built in 1984, under the direction of Soviet engineers. At that time, the Soviet Union was supporting the government in a civil war. However, that war ended in 1992. As was the Soviet custom, old ammunition was not destroyed, but kept around. Mozambique was, and is, a poor country. It made sense to keep those old mortar and artillery shells. After all, the Soviet military advisers noted that the Soviet Union did the same thing. But there was a major difference. The Soviet munitions depots were in much colder climates, which slowed the chemical reactions taking place in propellants and explosives once these items are manufactured. Eventually, the compounds, that make the propellants and explosives work, break down. This renders the propellants and explosives useless or, in some cases, unstable and very dangerous. The explosion in Maputo occurred after several weeks of high (90s) temperatures, which cooked some of those munitions into an unstable state.

The government ordered the depot to be dismantled, and all the remaining munitions disposed of. This tragedy may spur similar moves in other nations. The Maputo disaster was part of a trend. There were smaller explosions in the Maputo depot earlier this year, and two more before that. An even greater disaster occurred five years ago in Nigeria, when a munitions depot near the capital cooked off, killing over 200 people.

Russia, despite its cooler climate, has not been immune to problems with elderly, and cranky, munitions. In the 1990s, there were several munitions depot explosions, some of them quite spectacular. Russia, however, tended to put these depots in isolated areas, so the casualties were low. However, the Russians took the hint, and disposed of huge quantities of Cold War surplus munitions.

 


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