Inquiry into fatal weapons blast blames Cypriot leader

By Patrick Cockburn
Saturday 22 October 2011 08:31

An independent report yesterday blamed an explosion of a vast stock of confiscated Iranian munitions that killed 13 people on gross negligence by the Cypriot President, who may now be forced to resign.

The detonation in July of 85 containers filled with gunpowder, nitro-glycerine, artillery and anti-tank ammunition that were left lying in a field at a naval base was the worst military accident in the history of Cyprus. It also wrecked the island's biggest power station, leading to electricity cuts which did serious economic damage.

At a press conference in Nicosia yesterday, Polys Poliviou, the author of an independent report into the blast, said the President, Demetris Christofias, had a "serious and very personal responsibility" for the explosion. He accused him of having been warned by army officers that the munitions were in a dangerous condition, but did nothing about. Mr Christofias says he was kept in the dark about the danger posed by the explosives.

The disaster happened on 11 July at the Evangelos Florakis naval base between Limassal and Larnaca.

The containers had been left unattended for over two years in temperatures of 40 degrees centigrade (104 F), just 150 yards from the Vassilikos power station, the biggest in Cyprus. The explosion appeared to have been caused by a bushfire.

Among those killed were the head of the Cypriot navy and six fire fighters. More than 50 people were injured. In addition to the loss of life, the shortage of electricity at the height of the Cypriot summer damaged the tourism industry. The forecast annual rate of growth of the economy was cut from 1.5 per cent to zero at a time when the Cypriot banks are under pressure because of Greece's economic difficulties.

The containers were confiscated from a Cypriot-flagged ship on its way from Iran to Syria and were considered to be in breach of UN sanctions on Iranian arms exports.

The inquiry was told that Mr Christofias had promised President Bashar al-Assad of Syria the munitions would not be destroyed but would eventually be returned to Iran or Syria.

The report says the President, who denies responsibility, shares the blame for what happened with the foreign minister and defence minister, who have already resigned.

"Knowing the dangers of the cargo, the President did not take any action for its safekeeping," said Mr Polyviou at the end of a two-month long public inquiry. Instead, he "appeared to have adopted the policy, because of Syria, that the cargo should remain in Cyprus and not be destroyed. The President showed gross negligence, with the result that 13 lives were lost".

Mr Christofias, who has held office since 2008, could now face criminal charges and may have to resign.

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