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08:39 GMT +3 hours18 December 2014
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Analysis & Opinion

How one conscript cost Russia $3.5 million

Analysis & Opinion
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Private Sergei Denyayev could hardly have imagined on Thursday morning that by the end of the week he would be facing two years in prison after making 116 homeless.

Private Sergei Denyayev could hardly have imagined on Thursday morning that by the end of the week he would be facing two years in prison after making 116 homeless.

But a careless moment as he worked with fellow conscripts to prepare artillery shells for disposal started a fire at the ammunition depot, launching shells hundreds of meters into the air, setting fire to buildings and trees and injuring a dozen people.

On Friday, Denyayev's commanders told him that he would face a criminal investigation over the accident.

Investigators say he mistakenly threw an artillery shell still containing a detonator onto other shells ready for disposal, which triggered an explosion and the subsequent blaze.

When powerful blasts broke the silence in the sunny afternoon, shattering windows of the nearby buildings, residents in the Urals village rushed to leave their houses, many of which burst into flames soon afterwards. Local officials said 120-mm artillery shells were exploding at the depot.

"There is a cannonade in Urman Village. Shell explosions are coming one after another," Rustem Khamitov, the leader of the Bashkortostan Republic, reported in his blog. "Shells, splinters and ash are falling from above. Heavy smoke has filled the air..."

Official reports said no one had been killed in Thursday's accident, but the damage caused by Denyayev was estimated to exceed 100 million rubles ($3.5 million). Alexei Sadovsky of the Central Military District investigation directorate said Denyayev had pleaded guilty.

Sadovsky could not specify how much time had passed between the moment when Denyayev threw his ill-fated shell and the first blast, saying that investigators were working to establish the details.

"If he threw this shell, an explosion would have occurred immediately and everyone would have been killed, given the power of a 120-mm shell," says military expert Ivan Konovalov. "But there was no explosion. There was a fire, and explosions followed later. It's very strange."

Just another accident

The fire in Urman is a continuation in the series of accidents at Russia's military bases last year.

Last June, one person was killed and several dozen injured as old ammunition exploded at a military base in central Russia while being unloaded.

In November last year, a total of ten people were killed by two explosions at an arms depot in the city of Ulyanovsk in Russia's Volga region, which occurred with a 10-day interval. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev described the tragedy as a "shame" and fired several high-ranking military officials.

"Given the scale of Thursday's accident, it was very lucky that no one was killed," says Veronika Marchenko, who heads the Moscow-based Mother's Right foundation, a nongovernmental organization helping families whose sons died or received serious injuries during their military service.

Similar cases, which are "very widespread," unveil serious violations in safety at Russian military bases, she says.

Fatal negligence

Despite a decade-long debate on the number of professional servicemen in Russia's armed forces, they still largely rely on conscription. All Russian men between the ages of 18 and 27 are obliged by law to perform one year of military service.

According to the Russian military authorities, 478 soldiers died in Russia last year in non-combat situations. Accidents, including those due to violations in weapons handling, are the most widespread in the military.

The Mother's Right foundation says that of more than 4,000 families who turned to them for help in 2010, one-third had sons who died in accidents. Other reasons were suicides, illness and "acts of harassment"; only 2 percent of the deaths were combat-related.

Officers' negligence is often to blame for those accidents, Marchenko says. Many of the cases documented by the Mother's Right foundation show that soldiers were ordered to do dangerous jobs without proper instructions, which often resulted in casualties, she says.

"A private may be guilty if he is the one who caused the direct damage," she says. "But there are people who should have taught this private how to handle arms and how to dispose of a shell the right way."

The fire in the Urals village was reported to have been extinguished late on Friday. The local authorities have announced that the troubled arms depot will be closed.

MOSCOW, May 27 (RIA Novosti, Maria Kuchma)