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French, Greek experts assist Cyprus investigators as they probe deadly blast at naval base
NICOSIA, Cyprus (AP) ' Greek and French experts are helping Cypriot investigators piece together what exactly caused dozens of containers of seized gunpowder to explode on the island's main naval base, killing 12 people, an official said Tuesday.
The massive explosion leveled Evangelos Florakis base, turning fire trucks and military vehicles into twisted piles of scrap and shooting shards of copper and steel over a wide area. Many parts of the island are still intermittently without electricity after the powerful concussion wave knocked out the main power station.
Government spokesman Stefanos Stefanou said Greek experts have already joined Cyprus police and military investigators in scouring the rubble for clues while French officials were en route.
The probe into Monday's dawn blast, that killed the island's navy chief and also prompted the resignation of the defense minister and the top military chief, comes amid a torrent of criticism over how the 100 containers ' most of them filled with gunpowder ' had been stored.
The containers had been stacked one on top of the other in an open field at the navy base since 2009, when they were seized from the Cypriot-flagged M/V Monchegorsk that the United Nations said was breaching a ban on arms exports.
Military officials had previously expressed fears of what exposure to the elements would have on the containers and the gunpowder in letters to the Defense Ministry. Cyprus Auditor General Chrystalla Georghadji was quoted in an annual report in 2009 as saying that the contents' "composition and reaction to high temperatures is unknown."
"There will be an in-depth investigation, all will be investigated thoroughly and responsibility will be apportioned where it is due," Stefanou told reporters, adding that Cypriot President Dimitris Christofias had not been briefed on the containers' storage conditions or of any dangers relating to the gunpowder.
Stefanou said the government had sought to transport the containers to either Malta or Germany, but received no reply from the U.N. Security Council whose authorization he said was needed to do so.
Fotis Fotiou, a spokesman for the governing coalition, center-right party DIKO said "it is obvious that criminal negligence" caused the "national tragedy."
"There must be punishment," he said.
In a written statement issued late Tuesday, Stefanou said a police-led criminal investigation into the blast will run concurrently with another probe to be carried out by a committee Christofias will appoint to swiftly examine "all aspects of the issue and apportion whichever responsibility."
The powerful concussion wave also smashed window panes, tore off roof tiles and blew in doors to more than 240 homes in communities within a five-kilometer (three-mile) radius of the naval base.
Two men injured in the blast remain in critical condition. Nicosia General Hospital official Theodoros Kyprianou said one of the two men ' a soldier ' "had no face or eyes" and that his mother initially recognized him from a mark on his hand.
Health Minister Christos Patsalides said Israeli doctors would arrive on the island to assist Cypriot colleagues in treating the injured.
Rolling, two-hour power cuts were in effect island-wide Tuesday as officials said it will take months before the power station ' which provides more than half the island's power demand ' is brought back fully online.
Commerce Minister Antonis Paschalides said the government is in the process of arranging the transport of portable power generators from Greece and Israel, while a decree has already been issued making the use of public and private generators compulsory.
Paschalides said the government would also ask for tenders from private vendors for the supply of generators and would tap the European Union's disaster fund once a damage assessment is completed.
Stefanou said Turkish Cypriots' offer to provide power from the breakaway north of the ethnically divided island is also being looked into.
Officials have appealed to the public to curb electricity consumption as much as possible, particularly the use of air conditioning units despite summertime temperatures hovering at around 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit).
Similar appeals have been made to reduce water use as production from the island's electricity hungry desalination plants have been scaled down.
"The cooperation of all is essential in order to overcome the difficulties that are being encountered," said Stefanou.
People will gather in the capital's main Eleftheria Square later Tuesday to voice their despair over the blast.