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11 July 2011

Gunpowder explodes at Cyprus base, some 10 dead


Smoke billows from the damaged Mari power station _ the island's primary electricity generator _ damaged by the explosion's concussion wave near the Evangelos Florakis naval base in Mari, Cyprus, Monday July 11, 2011. A huge explosion tore through a Cypriot National Guard naval base causing widespread damage, the Defense Ministry said. At least 10 people were feared dead. A bush fire ignited gunpowder stored in containers that Cypriot authorities confiscated in 2009 from a ship sailing off its coast. The ship, the Cypriot-flagged Monchegorsk, had been suspected of heading from Iran to Syria, with gunpowder destined for Gaza. It was seized in February 2009. (AP Photo/Philippos Christou)

MARI, Cyprus — A huge explosion sparked by a brush fire that set light to containers of gunpowder tore through a Cypriot National Guard naval base Monday, causing widespread damage and leading to extensive power cuts, the Defense Ministry said. At least 10 people were feared dead.

President Dimitris Christopfias, who rushed to the site, 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.

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.

State broadcaster CyBC said 59 people had been injured, including two who were seriously hurt but whose lives were not in danger. There was no official death toll.

"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.

Hours after the blast, white smoke continued to billow from inside the base as a police helicopter flew overhead. Dozens of personnel from rescue crews, police, the fire department and the national guard were at the site.

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.

"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 (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.

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

- MSNBC