- Associated Press - Monday, July 11, 2011

MARI, Cyprus (AP) — A massive explosion ripped through a Cypriot naval base Monday after a brush fire detonated gunpowder stored in containers, killing 12 people, wounding 62 and prompting the resignations of the country’s defense minister and top military chief.

Bodies covered with white sheets lay scattered on a charred hillside near the Evangelos Florakis Naval Base on the Mediterranean island’s southern coast, while ambulances ferried the injured to hospitals in Larnaca and Limassol. The bodies of the dead where taken to a morgue at a hospital in Nicosia, the Cypriot capital.

The blast occurred in the early hours of the morning when a brush fire approached dozens of storage containers holding gunpowder that had been confiscated in 2009 from a ship heading from Iran to Syria.

With criticism mounting over how the material had been handled and stored, Defense Minister Costas Papacostas and the country’s top military official, Brig. Gen. Petros Tsalikides, who was National Guard chief, resigned over the incident.

Government spokesman Stefanos Stefanou said investigators had ruled out sabotage as a cause for the blast, but he wouldn’t elaborate further. He said experts will be called from abroad to assist police and National Guard investigators to determine the exact cause of the explosion.

Greece’s National Defense General Staff said it was sending “specialized military and security force personnel” to Cyprus to help with investigations following a Cypriot request.

Asked about concerns that the base commander reportedly had expressed fears over the safety of the gunpowder’s storage area, Mr. Stefanou said officials convened a meeting last week at the Defense Ministry to discuss the matter followed by an onsite inspection of the storage area.

He said certain decisions were made but weren’t implemented in time to prevent the incident.

Fifty of the 62 people injured were treated and released from hospitals, Mr. Stefanou said. Two of those still hospitalized suffered serious injuries.

President Dimitris Christofias asked Gen. Tsalikides and Mr. Papacostas to remain in their posts until replacements were found.

Mr. Stefanou said the government has declared a three-day mourning period, with all flags at public buildings flying at half-staff. State funerals would be held for those killed, he said.

The concussion wave from the blast damaged houses in nearby villages and knocked out the island’s main power station, leading to power cuts in several areas. Authorities appealed to the public to limit electricity consumption, which has spiked amid a three-day heatwave that has led to temperatures of about 104 degrees Fahrenheit.

Airport authorities said both Paphos and Larnaca airports were reducing power consumption to the minimum possible and had turned on their generators.

The Agriculture Ministry also urged the public to reduce water consumption as much as possible because desalination plants had been taken offline because of power problems.

The blast occurred just one day shy of the ninth anniversary of a fatal National Guard helicopter crash that killed then National Guard head Evangelos Florakis — for whom the naval base is named — and four other officers.