Cypriot defense min resigns after blast kills 12

MENELAOS HADJICOSTIS - Associated Press
AP
Smoke billows from the damaged Mari power station _ the island's primary electricity generator _  damaged by the explosion's concussion wave near the Evangelos Florakis naval base in Mari, Cyprus, Monday July 11, 2011. A huge explosion tore through a Cypriot National Guard naval base causing widespread damage, the Defense Ministry said. At least 10 people were feared dead. A bush fire ignited gunpowder stored in containers that Cypriot authorities confiscated in 2009 from a ship sailing off its coast. The ship, the Cypriot-flagged Monchegorsk, had been suspected of heading from Iran to Syria, with gunpowder destined for Gaza. It was seized in February 2009. (AP Photo/Philippos Christou)
View photos
Smoke billows from the damaged Mari power station _ the island's primary electricity generator _ damaged by the explosion's concussion wave near the Evangelos Florakis naval base in Mari, Cyprus, Monday July 11, 2011. A huge explosion tore through a Cypriot National Guard naval base causing widespread damage, the Defense Ministry said. At least 10 people were feared dead. A bush fire ignited gunpowder stored in containers that Cypriot authorities confiscated in 2009 from a ship sailing off its coast. The ship, the Cypriot-flagged Monchegorsk, had been suspected of heading from Iran to Syria, with gunpowder destined for Gaza. It was seized in February 2009. (AP Photo/Philippos Christou)

MARI, Cyprus (AP) — Dozens of containers of gunpowder seized years ago from an Iranian cargo ship exploded on Cyprus' main naval base Monday in a massive blast that killed 12 people, wounded 62 and wrecked a major power station, causing extensive blackouts.

The head of the island nation's navy, Commodore Andreas Ioannides, was killed and its defense minister and military chief resigned. Ioannides' son claimed top officials had repeatedly ignored his father's warnings that the gunpowder was stored unsafely. Defense ministry officials would not comment on the allegation.

A Cypriot official said right after the blast that a brush fire had ignited more than 90 containers confiscated in 2009 from a ship heading from Iran to Syria. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter, later said that the fire may have started inside one of the containers.

The gunpowder was seized after the United Nations said the Cypriot-flagged M/V Monchegorsk was breaching a ban on Iranian arms exports. Iran has frequently been accused of smuggling arms and munitions through Syria to anti-Israeli militants in Lebanon and the Gaza Strip.

The blast knocked out the island's main power station, causing widespread power cuts throughout the day. The Electricity Authority said the station won't immediately come back online,while officials appealed to the public to reduce electricity and water consumption as capacity at desalination plants had been scaled down.

A police and military statement said base commander Lambros Lambrou was also among the dead, along with four Navy personnel and six firefighters.

Bodies covered with white sheets lay scattered on a charred hillside near the Evangelos Florakis Naval Base on the Mediterranean island's southern coast, while ambulances ferried the injured to hospitals in Larnaca and Limassol.

Government spokesman Stefanos Stefanou said investigators had ruled out sabotage as a cause for the blast, but wouldn't elaborate. He said there was no risk of further blasts, and experts will be called from abroad to help police and national guard investigators determine the cause of the explosion.

Greece sent 10 military experts to assist with the investigation. Greece and Israel dispatched power generators.

Cyprus House Speaker Yiannakis Omirou, who visited the scene of the blast, told the Associated Press officials there informed him that all containers had blown up in the explosion.

With criticism mounting over how the material had been handled and stored, Defense Minister Costas Papacostas and the country's top military official, National Guard chief Brig. Gen. Petros Tsalikides, resigned over the incident.

Asked about reports that the base commander had expressed fears over the safety of the gunpowder's storage area, Stefanou said officials convened a meeting last week at the Defense Ministry to discuss the matter followed by an onsite inspection of the storage area.

He said certain decisions were made but weren't implemented in time to prevent the incident.

Ioannides' son said his father and other navy officers had repeatedly warned their superiors that the containers were unsafe, and those warnings were ignored.

Speaking on state television CyBC, Nicholas Ioannides said the containers had become "warped" because they had remained exposed to the elements since they were seized. He said his father had sought to have the containers either disposed of or transferred to a safer location.

A military official told The Associated Press that the navy chief had issued warnings, and said top military officers along with explosives experts inspected the site last week. But they decided there was no imminent danger as long as fire engines regularly doused the containers with water.

The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the Defense Ministry has yet to comment on the allegations.

Nicos Asprou, the community leader of the village of Mari, about a mile from the base, said the community was unaware that gunpowder had been stored in the base.

Asprou said safety procedures had not been followed, and that storage conditions on the base had proved to be "completely unacceptable."

The blast tore off roof tiles and shattered window panes from many homes and businesses in Mari, where one person was injured, Asprou said.

The government spokesman, Stefanou, said that by Monday afternoon, 50 of the 62 people injured had been treated and released from hospitals. Two of those still hospitalized had suffered serious injuries

Stefanou said the government has declared a three-day mourning period with all flags at public buildings flying at half staff.

About 300 people held a candlelit vigil for the dead outside the presidential palace in Nicosia late Monday.