President Personally, Politically Responsible for Naval Base Blast
NICOSIA - President Demetris Christofias, former Defence Minister Costas Papacostas and former Foreign Minister Markos Kyprianou carry personal and political responsibility for the deadly explosion at Evangelos Florakis naval base on July 11th, said Polys Polyviou who leads the one-member public inquiry into the blast.
Christofias, as head of state, has the heaviest responsibility for the tragedy which took 13 lives, said Polyviou in a press conference in Nicosia.
"I have no doubt that serious criminal charges like manslaughter will have to be investigated by the Attorney-general in connection with all involved," he said as he was giving his findings in an investigation that started on August 28th.
Polyviou declined to go into the matter of criminal charges, which are under the jurisdiction of Attorney-general Petros Clerides.
The explosion was caused by the combustion of unstable weapons in 98 containers stored at the naval base, and was not due to sabotage, said Polyviou.
"The explosion was due to the way they were stored without any protection under neglectful and irresponsible conditions...Samples were never sent for chemical analysis, there were no security measures to ensure their safety," he said.
The president was responsible for the decision to bring the cargo confiscated from Iran in 2009 and there was no consideration given to the fact that it was stored next to Vasiliko power station which was critically damaged in the explosion, said Polyviou.
Even though the president never signed a decision to store the explosives at Mari naval base, the decision still belongs to him, said the investigator. The entire approach to the operation was neglectful from the point the cargo was unloaded from the Monchegorsk ship, he said.
The cargo's danger was known to all involved, from the minister of defence to the presidential advisor Leonidas Pantelides, said Polyviou. Christofias knew about the danger as of the first moment it arrived in Cyprus and his latest information was on September 6th, 2010, according to testimony given to Polyviou during the course of his investigation.
Although help and explosives expertise was offered from foreign governments in the EU, it was rejected by the foreign minister, said Polyviou. The evidence is clear that there were offers of help, he said. Furthermore, warnings from army officials that the explosives were becoming unstable were met with the answer that there were political reasons to leave the containers at the naval base, he said. The National Council was not involved at all except for one meeting in January 2009 when they were informed of the decision to confiscate the arms from Iran, he said.
The navy's commanders were never informed of the cargo's contents, they were simply told that it was in the national interest to keep them at the base. Commodore Andreas Ioannides and commander of Evangelos Florakis base Lambros Lambrou were both killed fighting the fire that culminated in the explosion and Polyviou described their actions as heroic.
"I disagree completely with any attempts to lay the blame on the navy commanders," said Polyviou.
Political reasons - the president set the scene
Christofias was involved in setting the scene for the political reasons behind storing the cargo for two-and-a-half years at the base, said Polyviou. The president met with his Syrian counterpart Bashar al Assad to assure him that the confiscated weapons would be kept in Cyprus. He went so far as to tell Assad that the weapons would be returned to Syria and Iran, although in his own testimony, Christofias said that this would never have happened.
Polyviou said that he believed the president would not have returned the cargo to Iran or Syria, but as members of the EU which has a very specific policy on this, "we should never have spoken on the issue to Assad or anyone else." With his actions, the president set the scene for other political leaders like the foreign minister to follow, he added.
"But independently of any political decision, the cargo was left in the maximum danger," said Polyviou.
Ignorance is not a defence
The president testified that he did not know of the danger and that they (his advisers) had not informed him, but ignorance is not a defence in such an important matter, said the investigator.
"The answer that 'I don't know' is not enough...There was a time bomb left at the base for 2.5 years," said Polyviou.
The investigator clarified that the president and other government officials' responsibility is comprised of two aspects; the responsibility inherent in an official's job; and the personal responsibility inherent in the level of involvement that an official has in an issue.
"With great respect to the position and to the man, this was my job (to assign responsibility)," said Polyviou.
Fire service had time to act before explosion
The fire service were informed that there had been a problem with unstable gunpowder in the containers on July 6th, 2011 and had four days to do something about it before the blast, said Polyviou. However, the fire service had no knowledge of the situation prior to July 6th, he said. Nonetheless: "There was time between July 6th and 11th to bring explosives experts to test the materials," said Polyviou. An evacuation could have been organised if the right steps had been taken, he said.
Polys Polyviou handed his findings over to the president and to the attorney-general this morning. Thirteen men, including firefighters and sailors, were killed in the explosion he was appointed to investigate. There were 62 people injured and the island's main power plant was critically damaged, resulting in daily power cuts for over one month in the aftermath of the blast.
It is the first time in the history of the Republic that an independent committee has been appointed to investigate government activities, and the first time a president has testified to a public inquiry.
Photo of cloud over the naval base caused by explosion: Savvas Hadjigeorgiou
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