On Monday July, 11 2011 at around 4 am local time, a fire broke out in two containers at the Evangelos Florakis naval base in Mari, Cyprus. The boxes had been among nearly one hundred others seized two and a half years earlier from a ferry heading to Syria and contained shell casings, explosives, gunpowder and other highly hazardous material.
For years, these containers were simply left in direct sunlight.
Around an hour and a half later, after the fire had had time to spread, a powerful explosion – the fourth largest accidental explosion ever recorded on the planet – caused a shockwave that destroyed the Vasilikou power station next to the naval base.
The next morning Cyprus woke up in the dark, without any power and without knowing what had happened. The area around the source of the explosion looked like a bombsite; eyewitnesses describe the scene as similar to the bombings during the Turkish invasion of 1974.
Visibility was very poor and a pungent smell of burning hung over the old highway connecting Nicosia with Limassol, near Mari. The only vehicles with access to the blast site were ambulances.
The official response
At 13:30, the first official statement was issued once Cypriot cabinet ministers had completed an emergency meeting. Government spokesman Stefanos Stefanou stated that “the explosion occurred in the boxes that had been seized in 2009”.
“The National Guard was responsible for guarding the boxes,” Stefanou added. From the explosion, “twelve people (another one died three days later in hospital) were killed and over 60 injured,” said the spokesman.
“All victims will be buried at the public’s expense,” Stefanou concluded.
During the urgent cabinet meeting that took place on the morning of Tuesday, July 12, Cyprus’ Defence Minister, Kostas Papakostas and National Guard’s chief, lieutenant general Petros Tsalikidis resigned.
One week later, Cypriot Foreign Minister, Markos Kyprianou also resigned, while maintaining that he did not accept any responsibility for the tragedy.
A death foretold
A few days later, reports emerged in the local media that started to paint a picture of gross negligence; some people had not been taking sufficient care of the boxes, which were all marked as dangerous. Four days after the explosion, Cypriot President Dimitris Christofias announced the appointment of Polis Polybiou to lead an inquiry to run alongside the ongoing police investigation.
According to Polybiou’s conclusion one of the guilty parties was none other than President Christofias, leaving the latter to simply conclude that he did not recognise the enquiry’s conclusions.
Once police investigations were over, and with Polybiou’s findings on his desk, Cyprus’ Attorney General proceeded to prosecute former Foreign Minister Markos Kyprianou, Defence Minister Costas Papakostas, the former Deputy Chief of the National Guard Savvas Argyros, the Director and Deputy Director of the Fire Service, Andreas Nicholas Bambos Charalambous and the Governor of EMAK (Special Forces for Confrontation of Disasters ), Andreas Loizides for manslaughter and causing death by negligence, neglect of official duty and actions that cause physical harm.
Today, on July 9, 2013, a Cyprus court has found the former Defence Minister, Kostas Papakostas, the leading members of the Fire Department Andrew Nicholas and Bambos Charalambous as well as EMAK’s Governor, Andreas Loizides guilty on charges of causing death due to thoughtless act.
The court ruled that former Foreign Minister Markos Kyprianou and ex-deputy chief of the National Guard Savvas Argyros were not guilty.
Kostas Papakostas, Andreas Nikolaou, Bambos Charalambous and Andreas Loizides will be held in detention until July 24 when their lawyers will present mitigating circumstances for their clients.