Cyprus leader vows 'thorough' probe of deadly Iran arms blast

AFP , Thursday 14 Jul 2011

The Cypriot president promised on Thursday a thorough investigation into the explosion of munitions at a naval base that killed 12 people and knocked out the country's major power plant

Protesters shouts slogans as they run from tear gas during a protest over a fatal blast at a naval base that killed 12, outside of Presidential palace in Nicosia, Cyprus (Photo: AP)

In his first public address since the Monday morning blast, which also injured 62 people and damaged hundreds of homes, The Cypriot president, Demetris Christofias said "the demand of everyone is to find those responsible and apportion responsibility, even if this is from the lowest to the highest level."

"I assure you responsibility will be apportioned and taken," he said in a televised speech, announcing that he had appointed lawyer Polis Polyviou to head the investigation.

Polyviou's remit will be to expedite the police investigation into "every aspect and all the circumstances of this tragedy." Only a "thorough investigation," in which people are made accountable, will suffice "to restore the public's trust in the state and its institutions," he said.

The blast, the worst military accident in the country's peacetime history, has enraged the population and generated calls for Christofias to take responsibility himself and resign.

The same day the explosion ripped through 98 shipping containers stored in the open air at a field at the naval base, both the defence minister and the head of the National Guard resigned.

Agriculture Minister Demetris Eliades has been appointed temporary defence minister.

Among those killed was the head of the Cypriot navy, Captain Andreas Ioannides, who was reported to have repeatedly denounced the conditions under which the munitions were stored.

Five other military men, including base commander Lambros Lambrou and two 19-year-old twin brothers, were killed along with six firefighters.

Christos and Miltos Christoforou were buried in Limassol on Thursday. They died trying to put out a fire before it triggered an estimated 1.5 megaton blast that damaged 730 homes and businesses.

The containers had been at the base since February 2009. They were seized when Cyrus intercepted, under pressure from the United States and other Western nations, a freighter bound from Iran for Syria.

Christofias made no mention in his speech about whether he knew anything about the situation the containers had been in, nor did he respond to calls for him to step down.

The government has said the president had never been made aware of the risk or dangers posed by the containers being exposed to extreme heat.

On Wednesday, Attorney General Petros Clerides told reporters that, under the constitution, the president and MPs are immune from prosecution but not cabinet ministers.
He said only a court could waive the president's immunity.

Clerides agreed there was a need for accountability.

"Certainly there is responsibility to be apportioned and the people want to see who is responsible and to what extent," he said.

Frustrated Cypriots have been using social networking sites and texting all week to organise protests against what they perceive as government negligence in not preventing the accident.

Some 3,000 to 5,000 people marched on the presidential palace on Tuesday night, with people calling Christofias a murderer and demanding that he and others responsible be put on trial.

The generally peaceful gathering was marred at the end by a small group of extremists who threw rocks and flares at the gate and fences of the compound, prompting police to respond with tear gas and arrests.

Referring to that incident, the communist Christofias said a small group of "nationalists and ultra-rightists" had tried to "take advantage of human suffering" by "venturing to set the presidential palace aflame."

There was another demonstration on Wednesday night. A further one is planned for Thursday night and others next week.

Christofias also referred to the economy, which he said was in a "difficult situation" after the loss of the Vassiliko power plant, which provides roughly half of the country's electricity. He said all government services were "on alert to restore the damage done."

As Cyprus withers under scorching summer temperatures, the authorities have imposed rolling two-hour power cuts. An Israeli ship has brought 10 small generators to Cyprus while more from Greece are expected, as EU crisis funds are being made available.

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