Blast at Cyprus naval base kills at least 12 people

HUGE blasts in a seized Iranian weapons cache at a Greek Cypriot naval base in the south of the Mediterranean island killed at least 12 people.

The explosions at the Evangelos Florakis base devastated the adjacent Vassiliko power station – the island’s largest, accounting for almost 50 per cent of supply – triggering electricity outages across large swaths of Cyprus.

They also caused massive damage to homes in the village of Mari, forcing the evacuation of its population of 150 people.

The state CNA news agency said the death toll might rise as an unverified number of people were still posted as missing at the blast site, which had been reduced to scorched earth.

Defence Minister Costas Papacostas offered his resignation and it was accepted. President Demetris Christofias also accepted the resignation of National Guard chief Petros Tsaliklides.

CNA and public radio reported that National Guard commanders had expressed growing concern over the conditions of storage of the Iranian arms seized from the Cyprus-flagged MV Monchegorsk headed for Syria in 2009.

Firefighters were called to tackle a small fire in the storage area at 4.24am (11.24am AEST); the explosions followed at 5.50am.

Five firefighters were among the dead, who included four National Guard members and two sailors. A total of 59 people were injured in the blast.

Magazine casings, shrapnel and other debris from the explosion were littered throughout Mari. Windows and doors were blown in, some roofs had collapsed and structural damage was widespread.

Debris was hurled over a radius of as much as 3km from the seat of the blast in the naval base between Mari and the fishing village of Zygi further west. Hundreds of trees on nearby hillsides were flattened by the force of the blast and several of the generator buildings and fuel tanks at the Vassiliko plant were reduced to shells. Virtually every window was blown in Zygi.

The blasts struck among containers of Iranian munitions seized from the Monchegorsk, which was intercepted in the eastern Mediterranean en route to Syria in January 2009.

A UN Security Council panel concluded the shipment was in clear violation of an arms embargo against Iran adopted as part of UN sanctions imposed over Tehran’s nuclear program.

Senior Guards commanders had met with government officials last week to express their concern about the storage of the cache in the open air as temperatures have touched 40C.

Sailors had been forced to sprinkle the weapons with water after some gunpowder ignited in the tinder-dry conditions.

Mr Christofias visited the blast scene ahead of an emergency cabinet meeting. “The material damage can be repaired, but lives do not come back,” he said.

Electricity Authority of Cyprus chairman Charis Thrassou said it would take a long time to repair the Vassiliko plant, adding that an emergency rationing plan would be put to ministers.

The loss of supply also prompted the closure of the island’s desalination plants, which had allowed the gradual abandonment of summer water rationing over the past two years. At the island’s main international airport in Larnaca, morning flights were disrupted.

There was no immediate word on any damage to naval vessels at the base but officials who visited spoke of a scene of “devastation”.

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