Augsburg (Germany) – Some 54,000 residents of the southern German city of Augsburg had to leave their homes on Sunday, in what has been described as the country’s biggest evacuation since World War II, as authorities defuse a 1.8-ton aircraft bomb.

Police had said that everyone must be out of the marked clearance area, which comprises large parts of the city centre, by 10 am (0900 GMT).

Next, 900 police officers and hundreds of firefighters were checking a 1.5-kilometre radius around the bomb site to ensure that no one remained. This was expected to take about four hours.

“Everything is going according to plan so far,” a police spokesman said.

In addition to private residences, a hospital and more than a dozen facilities for the elderly were also evacuated, with more than 200 ambulances involved.

The British bomb was discovered on Tuesday during construction work. A protective barrier about a metre high has been built around the bomb in case it explodes.

The actual task of defusing the bomb could only begin between 2-3 pm, police spokesman Manfred Gottschalk said.

The city of 287,000 was quiet early Sunday as apparently many residents had already left their apartments on Christmas Eve.

“Christmas 2016 in Augsburg looks different than we all had expected,” Mayor Kurt Gribl said in an earlier video message on Twitter.

Authorities decided to hold the evacuation to defuse the aircraft bomb on Christmas Day, arguing that it would be easier to carry out on a public holiday than a normal work day.

The city set up emergency lodgings in six areas accommodating 3,100 people. The authorities had assumed that most of the evacuees would stay with family or friends.

In addition, many people around Augsburg offered affected residents temporary lodgings via Facebook, and Augsburg’s animal shelter offered emergency spaces for pets.

Unexploded bombs dating back to the aerial bombardments of Germany during World War II are still frequently found. Many local authorities have teams working full-time to detect and defuse them.

Before this, the biggest evacuation in Germany since the end of the war took place in 2011, when 45,000 people were forced to temporarily leave parts of Koblenz for the disposal of an unexploded Allied bomb.

In 2009, a Russian bomb from World War II was discovered just outside the Berlin apartment of Chancellor Angela Merkel, triggering a city-centre lockdown as well as the evacuation of local residents, including Merkel.

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