Cypriots wake up to hard facts after naval base blast

10:33, July 13, 2011      

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Cypriots woke up on Tuesday to power cuts, water rationing, and counting losses one day after a huge explosion demolished a naval base and turned a 2-billion euro power station into mangled metal.

A total of 98 containers packed with confiscated military explosives and munitions destined for Syria exploded at dawn on Monday at Mari Naval Base on the south coast of Cyprus.

The blast killed Cyprus' navy chief, the base commander and four other base personnel and six fire fighters who were battling a bush fire that preceded the explosion.

Medical experts were engaged in an all-night operation to identify the bodies, most of them mangled beyond recognition, by comparing genetic material taken from close relatives.

The blast wave put out of action the islands biggest power station providing more than half of island's energy, leaving the population dependent on two older and smaller installations.

State owned Electricity Authority said power cuts would be rotated between different regions of the island just as demand for energy was getting at is maximum at the start of the hottest period of summer when temperatures usually hover around 38 degrees Celsius, climbing at times to 44 degrees.

The Cyprus Energy Regulatory Authority has issued a decree, stating that use of power generators is compulsory in the country, since electricity production has been reduced by more than 50 percent after the disastrous impact of explosion.

Water will also be rationed for 12 hours every two days because power-hungry desalination plants were put out of operation to conserve energy.

Worst affected areas are the capital Nicosia, where more than one third of the islands population lives and the popular summer resorts on the eastern coasts, teaming with tens of thousands of tourists at this time of the year.

Greece said it was urgently sending two 60-megavatt generators to Cyprus to help alleviate the deficiency in power generating and other countries also offered to help with mobile power producing equipment.

The containers with their lethal cargo were confiscated from the Russian-owned ship the Monchegorsk, which was allegedly violated United Nations resolutions imposing an embargo on arms shipments to and from Iran.

The containers taken from the ship were given to the national guard for safe keeping and were stored one on top of the other in the naval base, 70 kilometers south of the capital.

Defense Minister Costas Papacostas, who resigned his post along with the Chief of the National Guard after the explosion, had answered criticism at the time that a dangerous cargo had been stored in a naval base by saying that the material was so safe that it could be kept even in a build up area.

Cyprus newspapers on Tuesday published classified documents claiming that there had been criminal negligence over the way the military material had been kept and in delaying action for its disposal.

Almost all newspapers had the word "criminal" in their headlines.

They said the containers had corroded and expanded under the intense Cyprus summer heat and salty sea-side conditions but the only safety measures taken were dousing the containers with water to cool them down. One newspaper published a picture showing a ball-shaped container.

In an irony of fate, the servicemen who were given the duty of spraying water over the containers, two twin brothers, were killed by the explosion while helping to fight the fire.

Government spokesman Stefanou Stefanou sounded to be on the defensive in answering charges by opposition politicians and newspapers that there had been negligence in delaying to take corrective measures for the keeping of the containers. They also accused the government of failing to take up offers by other countries, among them France, to handle the material in the containers.

A classified document published by some newspaper said a meeting of officials from the ministries of defense and foreign affairs and the National Guard was held in August, 2009 to explore ways of dealing with the containers.

According to the document, the Ministry of Defense and the National Guard were reluctant to continue keeping watch on the containers. However, the Foreign Ministry conveyed instructions by President Demetris Christofias that the containers were to stay at the naval base until after the UN General Assembly meeting, the following month and a scheduled visit to Syria by the President in October, 2009.

Opposition politicians put the blame squarely on President Christofias for taking no action whatsoever since then and for the consequences of the governments inactivity.

Stefanou said full answers will be given when a thorough investigation into the whole affair was carried out.

He confirmed reports that just a week ago a low-level meeting of experts had ascertained the containers were in bad shape and had decided to take action. However, he said the blast occurred before their recommendations were materialized.

Many Cypriots are in angry mood over the whole affair. Several hundred people kept vigil in the main cities last night in memory of the 12 dead of the blast. About 500 of them gathered outside the Presidents Palace and demanded his resignation, almost coming to grips with his guards.

Residents of the nearby Mari village just two kilometers from the blast point questioned the prudence of storing military explosives in the base.

"It was plain stupidity to keep so dangerous material in such a way and so closed to an inhabited area," said a shop owner who saw his small business place being blown out.

Source: Xinhua
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