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Cyprus launches criminal probe into munitions blast.

Summary: Cyprus launched a criminal investigation Tuesday into the cause of a massive blast at a munitions dump which killed 12 people and destroyed the island's largest power station.

NICOSIA: Cyprus launched a criminal investigation Tuesday into the cause of a massive blast at a munitions dump which killed 12 people and destroyed the island's largest power station.

The decision was taken on the advice of the attorney-general, government spokesman Stefanos Stefanou said in a statement.

Though not specified in the statement, it was believed inquiries would focus on negligence. Authorities said Monday, some hours after the blast at a military base on the south coast, that early inquiries had ruled out sabotage.

The explosives were exposed to scorching temperatures at the Evangelos Florakis navy base. They had been confiscated from a ship sailing from Iran to Syria in 2009 for violating U.N. sanctions on Iran.

Cyprus had attempted several times to offload the dangerous cargo, but was rebuffed by the United Nations, a senior official said Tuesday.

Attempting to fend off mounting criticism over Cyprus's worst peace-time disaster, authorities said they had tried in vain to get rid of the 98 containers of munitions.

"Our position in this difficult diplomatic issue was that the material not be held in Cyprus," said Stefanou.

He said, however, Cyprus had no choice but take the arms cargo in after its suggestions it went to the U.N. peacekeeping force in Lebanon was rejected, and it received no answer from the Security Council that the material be sent to Germany or Malta.

The economic impact of the disaster has yet to be assessed. Just a mangled shell remained of the 700 million euro power facility of Vassiliko Tuesday, a station which provided Cyprus with 53 percent of its energy. The crisis triggered rolling power and water cuts.

Newspapers accused authorities of criminal negligence, pointing a finger directly at Demetris Christofias, the communist president who was swept to power in 2008.

"[It was] a disaster that would have been avoided if our country was run by a less incompetent president," the liberal English language Cyprus Mail daily said in a front-page editorial.

The weapons-grade material confiscated was in violation of U.N. sanctions on Iran, and therefore the United Nations had to be involved in consultations about its fate, Stefanou said.

Cyprus had revisited the matter "from time to time" with the United Nations without success, he added.

Left stacked in scorching heat at a military base, one of the containers containing gunpowder had apparently expanded, letting off a "hissing noise" in the days preceding the blast, military sources said.

Relatives of victims and official documents said army officers were concerned at the storage of a dangerous cargo of munitions. Warnings by officers at the base, including the navy commander who was killed in the blast, went unheeded, say relatives.

However, it had never been discussed in Cabinet meetings, Stefanou said. "The presidency was not aware of this," he said.

Two of the victims, twin 19 year old conscripts, had been assigned to douse the stack regularly with water to keep temperatures down, their family said.

"Which idiot decided to place 98 containers of explosives in a compound C* directly opposite the largest energy facility the Cyprus Republic now has?" the daily Politis asked, splashing the word "Criminals" on its front page.

Copyright 2011, The Daily Star. All rights reserved.

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Publication:The Daily Star (Beirut, Lebanon)
Geographic Code:4EXCY
Date:Jul 13, 2011
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