Cyprus naval base blast kills 12

A brush fire set off containers of gunpowder that had been confiscated from a ship two years ago.

Mari: Cyprus`s government spokesman says the country`s defense 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 Defense Minister Costas Papacostas resigned, as did the National Guard Chief, Petros Tsalikides. He said investigators have ruled out sabotage.

Dozens of personnel from rescue crews, police, the fire department and the national guard were at the site of blast.

President Dimitris Christopfias, who rushed to the area, described the blast as "a catastrophe of biblical proportions". Opposition leader Nicos Anastasiades said all 98 containers, which held about 2,000 tons of gunpowder, had exploded.

White smoke continued to billow from inside the base as a police helicopter flew overhead. The bodies of at least two people lay on a hillside charred by the fire about 200 meters away. Rescue crews covered them with white sheets.

Residents in the village of Mari about two kilometers (one mile) away said the explosion made the ground shake like an earthquake. The blast also shattered house windows in nearby villages.

The ministry said the explosion occurred at the Evangelos Florakis Naval Base on the Mediterranean island`s southern coast at around 6 a.m. (0300GMT). State radio said the dead included two Cyprus navy sailors, two soldiers and five firefighters. There was no official death toll.

State broadcaster CyBC said 59 people had been injured, including two who were seriously hurt but whose lives were not in danger.

"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 Christofias.

A Defense 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 blaze was inside the base and near the containers.

"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," he said.

The concussion wave from the blast also 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 (104 Fahrenheit).

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.

Greek Defense Minister Panos Beglitis said Greece stood ready to provide any help that might be needed.

Bureau Report

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