Seized gunpowder explodes killing 12 at Cypriot naval base

A huge explosion ripped through a naval base in Cyprus early yesterday as a fire ignited a seized Iranian weapons cache, killing at least 12 people including the head of the navy.

The island's main power station was badly damaged and put out of action.

Cyprus's defence minister and military chief resigned as the death toll rose and recriminations began over perceived failings that led to the blast.

The explosion occurred when a brushfire inside the Evangelos Florakis naval base on the southern coast set off gunpowder confiscated by Greek Cypriot authorities from a ship sailing from Iran to Syria two years ago. Flinging debris over a two-mile radius, the blast shattered almost every window in the fishing village of Zygi.

The Vassilikos power plant, which supplies nearly half of Cyprus's electricity, was severely damaged, leaving many parts of the island in the dark.

"My tractor jumped about half a metre high," farmer Nicos Aspros, who was tilling a field, told Reuters. "There isn't a house in the community which hasn't been damaged."

President Dimitris Christofias, visiting the scene, describedit as a "catastrophe of biblical proportions".

The country's naval chief was killed in the blast, along with five firefighters and four members of the National Guard. More than 60 people were injured. As Cypriots began three days of official mourning, criticism of the handling of the munitions mounted, prompting both Defence Minister Costas Papacostas and head of the National Guard Brig-Gen Petros Tsalikides to step down. According to local reports, the base commander had repeatedly questioned whether the weapons were being stored safely amid concerns that the containers were in poor condition, exposing the munitions to soaring summer temperatures.

At the commander's request, the authorities inspected the weapons dump more than a week ago, but did not act quickly enough to prevent the blast.

"Decisions were taken on protecting the material but unfortunately this was not possible as time ran out," said government spokesman Stefanos Stefanou, promising a "thorough investigation".

Firefighters were first alerted at 4.24am with calls to put out a small brushfire inside the base. The first explosions occurred an hour and a half later after the blaze spread to the munitions dump.

The fire ignited about 100 containers holding 2,000 tons of gunpowder that had been seized by Cypriot authorities in 2009 from the Russian-owned ship Monchegorsk, which sailed under the Cypriot flag.

Britain and the US said that Iran had chartered the vessel, and accused it of ferrying arms to Syria in violation of UN sanctions against Iran, although some believed it was destined for Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

The naval base was flattened by the explosion, leaving only a few guard towers standing. State television showed images of scattered debris and twisted road signs as people described terrifying scenes of "raining metal".

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