A fire caused hundreds of fuel tankers to explode at the Afghanistan-Iran border on Saturday, injuring 17 people and damaging trade and humanitarian services in the western Afghan province of Herat.
The blaze broke out in the early afternoon at Islam Qala port, 120 kilometres from the city of Herat, engulfing the tankers that were parked nearby after crossing the border from Iran.
As the fire burnt into the night, the Afghan security forces set up checkpoints and helped ambulances and other emergency vehicles travel to and from the border crossing to Herat.
“According to our estimate, around 500 vehicles were in the parking lot of the border and were damaged,” said Yunus Qazizada, head of the Chamber of Commerce and Investment in Herat. “Our initial figures show that around $40-50 million worth of equipment and goods are affected,” he said.
The explosion incinerated customs infrastructure in the area.
Several businesses at the border were damaged by the fire, which also destroyed a large humanitarian centre for returning Afghan refugees.
Herat governor, Sayed Wahid Qatali, confirmed the large-scale damage. “Our security forces have done everything possible. We moved around 1,500 cars to Iran and another 500 vehicles inside our own border. We also moved around 400 vehicles towards Herat. We are doing everything in our capacity,” he said.
While it is still unclear what triggered the explosion, officials and witnesses told The National that the blaze started with small-arms fire. This led to a fire among fuel tankers carrying liquid petroleum gas.
Mr Qazizada, however, blamed the Afghan Ministry of Transport for the tragedy. “We are very disappointed in the Ministry of Transport's new regulation where they keep the vehicles for two weeks at the Islam Qala customs,” he said.
“The Afghanistan National Standards Authority is responsible for this because this incident happened during sampling,” he added referring to the body responsible for quality assurance.
“I was at the scene last night with the governor of Herat. The damage is beyond estimation. A big number of gas, oil tankers and other goods trucks are burnt and unfortunately the remaining goods are looted and there is not much left in Islam Qala,” Mr Qazizada said.
Mr Ahmad confirmed the same. “All these tankers were parked together. They would blow after one another, I could see big tankers flying in the sky and a lot of these poor drivers have been burnt. Later, I saw many burn victims were being transported from Islam Qala to Herat,” he said.
Meanwhile, humanitarian organisations that operate services at Zero Point, a reception centre that supports hundreds of Afghan returnees who are sent back from Iran every day, was severely damaged. Although no humanitarian workers were hurt, the roof of the building was blown off.
"I was receiving refugees at the centre, when we heard loud explosions. We all panicked and started running away," said Emal, an Afghan humanitarian worker from the facility who did not wish to use his real name.
Seeking safety, Emal ran in the direction of the border towards Iran.
“But when we got close to the Iran border, their police started shooting at us so we finally ran towards a forest area nearby,” he said, deeply traumatised by the event.
“We were few kilometres away from site of explosion but it was so strong that we could feel the burn on our face. Every time we lifted our faces up, we would feel a storm of flame. I felt like we are in hell,” he said.
“The border is completely closed. Today, Iran didn’t allow Afghan refugees to cross the border because the situation is still not normal,” he said.
Afghan officials, as well as humanitarian workers from the UN's International Organisation for Migration, confirmed the damage.
“We will evaluate the damage in the coming days and the potential impacts on delivery of humanitarian assistance,” said Nicholas Bishop, an emergency response officer at IOM.
About 60 per cent of Herat province was without power as a result of the fire, Afghan energy company DABS said.
Islam Qala is one of Afghanistan's major ports, through which most official trade with Iran is conducted. Afghanistan has received waivers from Washington allowing it to import oil and gas from Iran despite US sanctions.
The road between Herat and Islam Qala is a dangerous stretch of motorway that Afghans rarely travel at night for fear of attacks by criminal gangs. The Taliban also operate freely in the area.