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Turkmen Fireworks Warehouse Explodes

Neighbors of the plant?are returning home after Thursday's blast, which scattered the town?of?Abadan with?incinerated debris and destroyed several homes.

ABADAN, Turkmenistan (AP) -- Residents began trickling back to their homes Friday in a town in Turkmenistan hit by massive blasts that authorities say happened in a fireworks warehouse.

An Associated Press reporter saw signs of incinerated debris littering the streets and several houses showing signs of heavy damage from explosions Thursday afternoon that shook the town of Abadan, located around 12 miles (20 kilometers) outside the capital, Ashgabat.

The site of the blast was being guarded by police and was still smoldering mid-afternoon.

Authorities in the deeply secretive Central Asian nation say there were no casualties. An exiled opposition group dismissed the official explanation, saying the blast was not caused by fireworks but by an arms depot explosion, and that many were killed.

The government of this isolated former Soviet nation on Iran's northern border is notoriously secretive and reports are difficult to verify.

Parliament speaker Akzha Nurberdiyeva traveled to Abadan in the afternoon to call on residents to remain calm.

"You, the people of Abadan, are a very brave and hardy people," she told an assembled crowd.

Nurberdiyeva said all those whose houses had been badly damaged would be provided with replacement homes.

In the morning, witnesses said the road from Ashgabat to Abadan had been closed off by traffic police, but later in the day motorists were being allowed back into the town.

Nurberdiyeva said that adults evacuated the day before would be allowed to return to Abadan, but that it was too early to allow children back in.

Officials have not confirmed any casualties, but Khronika Turkmenistana, a website run by Vienna-based Turkmen dissident Farid Tukhbatullin, cited an eyewitness as saying that he saw four men's bodies covered with sheets.

The site also reported that numerous shells could be seen flying off into nearby mountains on Thursday.

Tukhbatullin maintains regular contact with his home country and is considered a reliable source of information on developments inside Turkmenistan.

Abadan is the site of a gas-fired power plant that acts as a major electricity supplier to Ashgabat. Power supplies to the capital failed sporadically throughout Thursday evening.

Arms depot explosions are not unusual across the former Soviet Union.

In July 2008, a fire spread to a Soviet-era military base in a town in neighboring Uzbekistan, setting off a chain of blasts that lasted for hours.

Turkmen authorities have tacitly acknowledged that their military equipment is wanting, and only this week President Gurbanguli Berdymukhamedov told military officials that work was needed to improve the army's technical readiness.

The country currently relies heavily on enlisted soldiers for its security, including for patrolling the area of the capital around the presidential palace. Berdymukhamedov has said the military should seek to enlist more professional soldiers as a way of boosting the army's professionalism.

Turkmenistan is an energy-rich country of around 5 million people that has been ruled by Berdymukhamedov since the death of the eccentric President Saparmurat Niyazov in 2006.

Upon coming to power, Berdymukhamedov vowed to gradually open up his country, but Turkmenistan still remains largely closed to outsiders and authorities maintain a tight control over information.


Associated Press writer Peter Leonard in Almaty, Kazakhstan, contributed to this report.