KABUL, Afghanistan – A fuel tanker exploded at an overcrowded border post in western Afghanistan on Saturday afternoon, triggering a huge fire that spread to more than 100 other tankers as intense flames slowed down the response of firefighters and rescue vehicles.
Officials said they had not determined what caused the first tanker to explode shortly after noon at the Islam-Qala customs post on the border with Iran. They sounded the alarm on Saturday night that the fire had spread quickly at the overcrowded customs complex and could engulf hundreds of tankers at the border.
Officials in Herat said they could not confirm the Afghan and Iranian media reports that up to 500 tankers had already burned and that the fire had spread to the Iranian customs post on the other side of the border.
At least 17 people were injured, and the number of casualties is expected to increase, said Mohammad Rafiq Sherzay, the provincial public health spokesman.
Ahmad Tariq Saleh said his company, Hnif Merwan, lost 21 tankers on fire.
The tankers import fuel and natural gas from Iran. The United States has granted Afghanistan an exemption from the sanctions imposed on Iran to import fuel, although the US-backed Afghan security forces are prohibited from using it.
Iran is Afghanistan’s largest trading partner, and the crossing is crucial to the economy of Herat province and western Afghanistan. A prolonged interruption of the intersection could cause hardship in the region.
The Taliban operate so-called shadow governments in much of the countryside outside the city of Herat, while the US-backed government controls Herat and other population centers. The militants often set up checkpoints on roads and levy taxes on goods and vehicles.
Jailani Farhad, a spokesperson for the governor of Herat, shut down Jailani Farhad, due to the fire, as a precautionary measure of the electricity supply from neighboring Iran. The capital of the province, the city of Herat, is about 120 km east of the border crossing, located on a major commercial transit route between Afghanistan and Iran.
“All our forces and our fire department are trying to control the fire,” Farhad said.
Iran has sent firefighters to assist Herat’s fire department, the country’s state-run IRNA news agency reported late Saturday, quoting the director general of crisis management in Khorasan Razavi province in northeastern Iran.
David Zucchino reports from Kabul and Asad Timory from Herat.