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President Christofias denies blame for killer blast.


Michele Kambas

President Demetris Christofias denied any blame for a deadly munitions explosion in July, Cyprus's worst peacetime disaster, which has triggered calls for him to resign.

He testified on Monday that he was kept in the dark by his own ministers and aides about growing signs that storage of the confiscated Iranian munitions had become dangerous. The arms exploded next to a power station on July 11, killing 13 people.

"I had told my cabinet ... the President felt like a cheated husband, who was the last to know," Christofias told an independent board of inquiry, whose probe is running in parallel with a criminal investigation into the explosion.

The munitions were confiscated by Cyprus in 2009 from a Cyprus-flagged ship sailing to Syria from Iran, in violation of U.N. sanctions, and were stored in scorching summer temperatures yards away from Vassilikos, Cyprus's primary power station which supplied the island with more than half its electricity.

The station was destroyed in the blast, costing Cyprus at least 1 billion euros ($1.4 billion), deepening economic woes and fanning speculation the island would require an EU bailout.

Investigators are trying to fathom how authorities could have failed to take action to prevent the explosion despite warnings from army officers that a disaster was imminent.

Nothing was left of the cargo in 98 shipping containers, containing a mix of gunpowder and nitroglycerine, and metal casings. Despite keeping it for more than two years, Cypriot officials said they only found out exactly what the cargo contained after the explosion.

U.N. inspectors who wanted to view the consignment were repeatedly stalled by Cypriot officials, the panel has heard.

"The head of the National Guard (army) told us that gunpowder wouldn't explode ... we later (post explosion) discovered nitroglycerine was mixed in with the gunpowder," Christofias said. He said he was never told Cypriot diplomats stonewalled on requests for meetings from U.N. inspectors.

"The competent officials underestimated the danger. I was told that any risk (from storage) was small," Christofias told investigators. It is the first time in the history of the Cyprus Republic that an incumbent president has been called to testify to a public inquiry.

Christofias, who has seen his popularity plummet and a key coalition partner quit government since the blast, blamed what he described as a "systemic failure" for the incident.

"It's clear in my mind that the whole incident was a failure of the system," Christofias said. He repeatedly denied that he shouldered any personal responsibility for the blast. His defence and foreign ministers resigned after the incident.

"They have assumed their responsibility," he said, saying he agreed with an assertion by lead investigator Polis Polyviou that "gross negligence" had been displayed, but not by him.

"How can one assume responsibility when they are not made aware of the situation?" Christofias asked. "Some want my head on a platter, but nobody spoke to me about the serious risks of this cargo and therefore they cannot attempt to offload(responsibility) onto the President of the Republic."

Looking drawn, Christofias avoided any contact with relatives of victims at a converted auditorium in Cyprus's finance ministry.

A man who is often portrayed as having the common touch, his public appearances have been limited since the explosion which unleashed unprecedented public fury and demonstrations calling for his resignation.

He answered with a stony "No" when a young woman holding a photo of a man in navy uniform asked if she could pose a question. He was hurriedly escorted from the room by plain clothes police who attempted to detain one man after someone was heard shouting "Have you no shame? Murderers!"

Copyright Cyprus Mail 2011

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Publication:Cyprus Mail (Cyprus)
Geographic Code:4EXCY
Date:Sep 5, 2011
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