BAGHDAD (Reuters) - At least 15 people were killed and 132 wounded when a building used by militants to store weapons and tonnes of explosives blew up in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul on Wednesday, senior security officials said.
Iraqi officials said women and children were among the victims from the blast, which also tore through nearby homes. Heavy equipment had been brought in to dig for survivors.
“There are still people trapped inside the blast site and under rubble,” Major-General Mark Hertling, commander of U.S. forces in northern Iraq, told Reuters by telephone.
He said Iraqi soldiers had detonated a roadside bomb they had found, which triggered a “massive secondary” explosion in the building. Explosive experts at the scene estimated 15 tonnes of ordnance had been hidden in the building, Hertling said.
Iraqi security officials had earlier suggested the blast was detonated as police arrived to search the building following what they said was a tip from a detained militant.
Witnesses said it was one of the biggest explosions ever heard in ethnically and religiously mixed Mosul, 390 km (240 miles) north of Baghdad. They said a huge plume of smoke rose above the largest city in northern Iraq.
The explosion destroyed the unoccupied three-storey building. Hertling said 12 civilians and three Iraqi soldiers had been killed and that U.S. military medics had been sent to Mosul to help treat the wounded.
Mosul is the capital of Nineveh province, one of Iraq’s northern regions where U.S. and Iraqi forces this year have launched offensives against Sunni Islamist al Qaeda fighters who are most often blamed for large-scale bombings in Iraq.
The offensives were carried out after al Qaeda militants were squeezed from former strongholds in western Anbar province and areas around Baghdad by security crackdowns last year.
In another attack in northern Iraq, a suicide car bomb killed seven people and wounded 16 others about 40 km (25 miles) from the city of Kirkuk, police said.
Despite persistent bombings in northern Iraq, violence has fallen sharply across the country, with overall attacks down by 60 percent since last June.
U.S. and Iraqi officials credit the deployment of an extra 30,000 U.S. troops and the growing use of mainly Sunni Arab neighbourhood police units in areas where local citizens turned against al Qaeda for the drop in violence.
U.S. soldiers backed by attack aircraft killed 20 suspected al Qaeda fighters in raids in northern Iraq over the past two days, the U.S. military said.
In the biggest operation, U.S. ground troops seeking an al Qaeda network leader near the Diyala provincial capital Baquba called in air support after encountering a number of militants who took up “fighting positions”. Ten were killed in the raid.
Additional reporting by Wisam Mohammed, writing by Dean Yates and Paul Tait; editing by Matthew Jones