Cyprus’s government spokesman says the country’s defence minister and the head of the National Guard have resigned over a deadly explosion at a naval base that killed 12 people and injured more than 60.
Monday’s explosion at the National Guard’s Evangelos Florakis Naval Base on the Mediterranean island’s southern coast occurred when a brush fire set off containers of gunpowder that had been confiscated from a ship two years ago.
Government spokesman Stefanos Stefanou said Defence Minister Costas Papacostas resigned, as did the National Guard Chief, Petros Tsalikides. He said investigators have ruled out sabotage.
State radio said the dead included two Cyprus navy sailors, two soldiers and five firefighters.
"We were devastated by this event, not so much by the material damage, but by the loss of human lives and the injury of many of our compatriots," said President Dimitris Christofias, who visited the naval base after the blast.
He described the scene at the base as a "a catastrophe of biblical proportions."
A Defence Ministry official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation was not complete, said the blast appeared to have been caused by a brush fire that broke out nearby and spread to the base.
The fire ignited gunpowder stored in containers that Cypriot authorities confiscated in February 2009 from a ship sailing off its coast. The ship, the Cypriot-flagged Monchegorsk, had been suspected of carrying the gunpowder from Iran to Gaza.
Fire department spokesman Leonidas Leonidou said firefighters received a call at 4:27 a.m. saying the fire was inside the base and near the containers.
"Whether it started on or off the base, and how it started, we cannot say," he told the AP.
"This is a tragedy for Cyprus," said Andros Kyprianou, leader of the country’s largest AKEL party. "It’s not exaggeration to say this is a massive catastrophe. The physical damage will be repaired, but the lives lost ... nothing can bring them back."
The concussion wave from the blast severely damaged the island’s main power station, leading to power cuts in several areas, including the southern town of Larnaca. Authorities appealed to the public to limit their electricity consumption, which has spiked amid a three-day heatwave that has led to temperatures of about 40 degrees Celsius.
Airport authorities said both Paphos and Larnaca airports were reducing power consumption to the minimum possible and had turned on their generators.
Meanwhile, the Agriculture Ministry also urged the public to reduce water consumption as much as possible because desalination plants had been taken offline due to power problems.
Power station remains online
Cyprus Electricity Authority official Yiannis Tsouloftas said the power station would remain offline for at least the rest of the day. The island’s two other smaller power stations were trying to cover electricity demand, Tsouloftas said.
"There are several parts of the island that are without power," Costas Gavrilidis, a spokesman for state power utility AHK, told state-run CyBC television.
CyBC footage showed numerous damaged cars stopped along a stretch of highway near the base. One person who was in a car passing the base at the time of the explosion told CyBC that it felt like "a bomb had been dropped on the car."
The broadcaster said the explosion also caused extensive damage to homes in villages near the naval base.
"I was driving to work and it was like a lightning bolt. It damaged the car and there was smashed glass and debris everywhere," Antonis Savvas, who received hospital treatment after the blast, told the TV station. "It was raining dust and debris — I don’t know how else to describe it. Thank God nobody in the car was hurt badly, the only thing that happened was this," he said nodding toward his injured arm in a sling.
Greek Defence Minister Panos Beglitis said Greece stood ready to provide any help that might be needed.
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