THESSALONIKI — About 72,000 residents were cleared from a neighborhood in Greece’s second-largest city as munitions experts on Feb. 12 began trying to neutralize a massive WWII unexploded bomb.
Officials sealed off the area up to 30 kilometers (18.6 miles) in the Kordelio district where the bomb was discovered and residents in a two-kilometer (1.2-mile) radius had to leave their homes.
On Feb. 10, authorities distributed fliers and put up posters warning of the dangers of the 500-pound weapon that’s been in the ground for decades.
The bomb, dropped during an air raid on the city in the 1940s, was found during work to expand fuel storage tanks.
The evacuation started at 7 a.m. (0500 GMT) but three hours later it was still continuing, delaying the expected start of the bomb-defusing operation. Police went house-to-house ringing bells and knocking on doors to remind people to leave their homes.
Many people left in their cars, but some were being bused to schools and sports halls elsewhere in the city, where they can find food and shelter.
Others, like 26-year-old Alexander Bogdani and his wife, Anna Bokonozi, left on foot. The couple, pushing a stroller with their toddler daughter, were going to a place about 1 kilometer (over 1/2 mile) from their home.
“They have warned us … we are afraid for the child,” Bogdani said.
The city’s main bus station was shut down, trains in the area were halted and churches canceled their Sunday services. The city also booked a 175-room hotel where people with limited mobility and their escorts were taken on Feb. 11.
“This is the largest population move in peacetime. People must be calm and not panic,” Central Macedonia governor Apostolos Tzitzikostas said.
The operation to defuse the bomb, found under a gas station, is expected to last about six hours, authorities say.
Army bomb disposal experts will initially attempt to defuse the bomb’s detonator, and then transport it to an army firing range, where they will figure out what further steps to take, said army spokesman Col. Nikos Fanios.
Fanios said the device’s exterior was too degraded to be able to determine whether it was a German or an Allied bomb. But one resident says he recalls the day it fell.
“The bombing was done by English and American planes on Sept. 17, 1944. It was Sunday lunchtime,” said Giorgos Gerasimou, 86, whose home is half a mile away.
The Allies were targeting local German rail facilities, he said.
Nazi Germany occupied Greece from 1941 until October 1944.
A State of Emergency was declared in the three municipalities involved and about 1,000 police and 300 volunteers were expected to help out during the evacuation, Thessaloniki’s Deputy Governor Voula Patoulidou told The Associated Press.
“It is the first time something like this is happening in Greece,” Patoulidou said. “The transfer of all residents is mandatory and we will go door-to-door to make sure everyone leaves.”
Thessaloniki’s long-distance bus terminal, which is in the area, was shut down during the operation, and trains also stopped running to and from the city, as the main railway line passes through the exclusion zone.
Traffic along a major road nearby will be halted, while churches in the area will not hold services.
Army spokesman Col. Nikos Fanios said the device’s exterior was too degraded to be able to determine whether it was a German or an Allied bomb. But one resident said he recalled the day it fell.
“The bombing was done by English and American planes on Sept. 17, 1944. It was Sunday lunchtime,” Giorgos Gerasimou, 86, whose home is 800 meters (half a mile) from where the bomb was found told AP. “We could see the planes coming.”
They were targeting local German rail facilities, he said. Nazi Germany occupied Greece from 1941 until October 1944.
Army bomb disposal experts will initially attempt to defuse the bomb’s detonator, and then transport the device to an army firing range, where they will determine what further steps to take, said Fanios. “Every operation involving munitions is always difficult,” he said.
Some residents expressed concern about leaving their properties vacant.”
(Material from the Associated Press was used in this report)