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Explosion at military base kills thirteen and becomes international incident

On Monday July 11, the people of Zygi, a little fishing village on the island of Cyprus, were just starting to wake up. The lazy Mediterranean was stretching its limbs on the little bay where the village sits, a summer tourist destination for northern Europeans and site of the Cypriot naval base Evangelos Florakis. Suddenly, there was a terrifying explosion-a series of explosions followed by columns of smoke and fire.

Ninety-eight containers packed into the military base proceed to explode one after the other. Thirteen people die and more than sixty are wounded. The village of Zygi is no longer. It took only a few hours to discover that arms and munitions from inside the base were responsible for the explosion. The tragedy soon led to international intrigue and a political scandal implicating the Cypriot government and international affairs.

The arms shipment responsible for the explosion has a long and complicated history. It was discovered last January 29 on board the merchant ship Monchegorsk, which flies the Cypriot flag. The Monchegorsk was intercepted the US navy vessel San Antonio, a ship used by the Marines to transport troops and weapons that is also engaged in policing activity and anti-piracy patrols in the Red Sea.

US military personnel discovered an enormous weapons cache on board: ammunition, rockets, artillery missiles. The US confiscated the weapons with the help of Cypriot authorities, according to whom the shipment was coming from Iran and headed to Lattakia, a Syrian port. Presumably from there it would have continued overland to Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza. Cyprus bowed to US requests to store the weapons at Evangelos Florakis where they remained for more than five months until the explosion on July 11.

Needless to say, this posed a risk to the local community as the explosion has now demonstrated. And now Cypriots are demanding an explanation. "Criminals," accused the headline in the July 14 edition of the Cypriot daily Politis. The newspaper reports that Andreas Ionnides, base commander as well as commander in chief of the Cypriot navy, had repeatedly warned authorities of the danger of the shipment, which was being stored without appropriate security measures in containers exposed to temperatures that reached forty degrees Centigrade. His concerns were not unfounded-he died in the explosion along with his men and has already become a kind of folk hero in Cyprus. Cypriot defense minister Costas Papacostas and general Petros Taslikides, head of the Cypriot National Guard (the island's army), have resigned. But the government itself is at risk.

The night of the accident an angry crowd of at least ten thousand people gathered in front of the offices of prime minster Dimitris Christofias to demand that he and his entire cabinet step down. The police responded with force, using tear gas, and further inciting public opinion in Cyprus. At the same time, protestors launched an online signature campaign for a petition demanding the resignation of Christofias and his government.

The fire at the military base also shut down the Vassilikò electrical plant, which supplies power to forty percent of the base. This in turn forced stoppage of desalination equipment that keeps this island supplied with much-needed drinking water. "A disaster of Biblical proportions," according to Costas Gavrielides, spokesperson for the electric company.

The government under attack is trying to defend itself. "For two months we've been asking the UN to take the shipment," declared Stefanos Stefanou, Christofias's spokesperson. "We never got a response from anyone even though we let it be known that the arms were confiscated as part of an international patrol under the authority of the United Nations." This is where the intrigue becomes international. The UN was trying to keep dialogue with Tehran alive and so was hesitant to let the world know that, despite an international embargo, arms were getting out of Iran.

In January the US tried walked away from the incident and left it Cyprus to sort things out, but now they risk being pulled back in. In fact, the men of the San Antonio should have confirmed exactly what the arms shipment contained. The incident will certainly assume greater urgency if, as some are now claiming, many of the exploded missiles contained depleted uranium.

According to Professor Theodore Liolios of the Greek Center for Arms Control, who raised the alarm, Wiki Leaks has published confidential documents in which the US mentions depleted uranium without notifying the Cypriots. Most recently, the US and Cypriot embassies have been quick to advise US citizens to keep away from the area around Zygi. We can only wonder why.


Christian Elia
translated by Gary Cestaro