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Cyprus munitions explosion kills 12

The munitions, seized in 2009 from an Iranian shipment to Syria, apparently exploded when a wildfire reached a military base. The explosion leads to the resignations of Cyprus' defense minister and the commander of the Greek Cypriot National Guard.

July 12, 2011|By Roula Hajjar, Los Angeles Times
  • Rescuers walk among debris and bodies covered by sheets around the Evangelos Florakis military base, where a huge explosion on Monday killed 12 people and caused widespread damage.
Rescuers walk among debris and bodies covered by sheets around the Evangelos… (Associated Press )

Reporting from Beirut — Two top officials in Cyprus resigned Monday after a massive explosion of munitions seized from an Iranian shipment to Syria killed at least 12 people in the Mediterranean island nation.

The early-morning explosion in the southern city of Zygi, which was felt for miles around, destroyed a power plant, leveled houses and shattered windows, doors and even the railing of a highway, said witnesses and journalists reached by telephone. Sixty-two people were injured.

The blast at the Evangelos Florakis military base, apparently set off by a wildfire, quickly led to the resignation of the European Union nation's defense minister, Costas Papacostas, and the commander of the Greek Cypriot National Guard, Petros Tsaliklides.

Photos: Munitions explosion in Cyprus

The ammunition was confiscated in early 2009 from the Cypriot-licensed cargo ship Monchegorsk as it sailed from Iran to Syria, according to the official Cyprus News Agency. The seizure was carried out in line with the U.N. Security Council's arms embargo on Iran over that country's nuclear aspirations.

The Cypriot government has declared three days of mourning for the victims of the explosion, CNA reported.

"The impact from the explosion was huge," said John Leonidou of the English-language newspaper Cyprus Weekly. "People on the highway were showered with debris."

The blast left a deep crater where the munitions were stored and caused extensive damage to the nearby village of Mari, CNA said.

"There were 98 containers of gunpowder," a police spokesman told CNA. "Two of them [caught] fire and huge explosions occurred."

Five firefighters, four national guard members and two sailors were among those killed, CNA reported. The identity of the 12th person was not immediately clear.

The island's largest power plant, located next to the naval base, was destroyed. Blackouts are expected just as the summer heat peaks.

"Cyprus lost 40% of its power," Leonidou said. "We experienced a power cut in the morning and another one as we speak."

Government spokesman Stephanos Stephanou said the Cabinet had called in experts from abroad to assist in investigating the tragedy.

According to Cypriot public radio, Iran's ambassador visited the presidential palace in Nicosia after the blast, hinting at the political undertones of the event.

"When Cypriots confiscated the ammunition, it was because they wanted to be on America's good side. America had been exerting a lot of pressure on Cyprus to take care of the shipment," said one analyst in Cyprus, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

According to the analyst, authorities in Cyprus impounded the weapons reluctantly. "Cyprus was on good terms with Iran at the time," he said.

Residents of the area have been complaining that the ammunition depot was unsafe and improperly monitored. "At this point, residents have major contempt for the gross negligence of the national guard," Leonidou said.

Stephanou told CNA that the Cabinet met last week to discuss the depot and decided to take steps to protect the material. The decision was "unfortunately not implemented due to lack of time," Stephanou said.

Photos: Munitions explosion in Cyprus

Hajjar is a special correspondent. Times staff writer Borzou Daragahi contributed to this report.

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