ARYS, Kazakhstan -- Kazakhstan's president Tuesday (June 25) said that a criminal investigation has been opened into a munitions depot blast that killed two people and left 165 injured in a town in the south of the country, AFP reported.
Authorities evacuated Arys, a town of 40,000 inhabitants, following a blast Monday (June 24) that the Defence Ministry said was caused by a fire that caused ammunition to explode. Security concerns prompted the evacuation.
Residents have been evacuated to Shymkent and the villages of Muntaitas, Kabylsai and Shagyr, which are situated 25km to 35km away from the explosion's epicentre.
Social media users shared videos of residents fleeing the area, where properties were damaged, as huge plumes of smoke rose in the background.
"One civilian and one serviceman" were killed and 165 patients had sought treatment, Prime Minister Askar Mamin said Tuesday during a cabinet meeting.
Newly elected President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev on Tuesday visited hospitalised survivors in Shymkent.
He has ordered the Interior and Defence ministries to prevent further explosions and pledged that the perpetrators would be "prosecuted under the law", he tweeted.
"A criminal case has been opened," Tokayev said.
The government will restore the town and compensate victims, he said.
Explosions at the depot could continue for several days, regional governor Umirzak Shukeyev warned Monday.
The incident has also interrupted transport in Kazakhstan and the wider region.
More than a dozen trains were cancelled, including one to Tashkent, Uzbekistan, said rail authorities in Kazakhstan.
A high-speed train to Moscow that passes through Kazakhstan has been cancelled, said rail authorities in neighbouring Kyrgyzstan Monday.
"An evacuation is taking place. The authorities are doing everything to avoid casualties," Shymkent resident Valentin Markov said in an interview.
"People are concerned," he said. "They are worried about their safety and for their abandoned apartments and houses. Some are leaving Arys in their own vehicles or by hitching rides. Everyone is hoping for the best -- that the danger will recede and they will return home."
The Committee for Emergency Situations is posting lists of evacuated residents online. Authorities also set up a round-the-clock information hotline for area inhabitants.
The Interior Ministry (MVD) said it was investigating reports of missing children from Arys.
Meanwhile, about 1,000 security personnel from the MVD and the Justice Ministry are maintaining order in Arys.
Three suspects were arrested for looting in Arys, Interior Minister Yerlan Turgumbayev said, according to AFP.
Legacy of the Soviet Union
The arms depot is part of the unsafe legacy that the Soviet Union left behind, including uranium tailings throughout Central Asia and elevated cancer rates around the old nuclear testing site in Semipalatinsk, Kazakhstan.
In 2008, the government of Kazakhstan ordered the destruction, disposal and burial of all unnecessary Soviet munitions, but the order was never fully carried out, zakon.kz reported.
The depot in Arys is one such facility inherited from the Soviet era.
Munitions depot blasts are not uncommon in Central Asia.
Monday's blast was the fourth one to hit the depot near Arys, with three Kazakhs killed during an explosion in 2009, AFP reported.
In light of the history of explosions at the facility, authorities -- as noted by Tokayev -- have opened a criminal case under Article 462 of the Criminal Code for "violation of rules for handling weapons and hazardous substances and objects".
Such munitions depots and military facilities have also been targeted by terrorists in the past and sometimes require special security measures.
In 2016, terrorists attacked a military base in Aktobe, attempting to seize weapons.
Kazakh troops in April this year held the Altyn Zhebe (Golden Arrow) anti-terrorist exercises to protect military sites.