Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Cyprus Leader Says He Won't Resign Inquiry Finds President Responsible for Explosion of Seized Iranian Munitions

Cypriot President Demetris Christofias defied pressure from opposition parties to resign, after the head of an inquiry into a massive explosion of seized Iranian munitions said his report had found the president personally responsible.
Speaking after the report was handed in Monday, Mr. Christofias dismissed the report's conclusion that he bore "grave personal responsibility" for the explosion and said he wouldn't resign, Cyprus News Agency reported. Opposition leaders had quickly called for Mr. Christofias, who is head of state and of government, to step down.
A separate police inquiry report, focused on potential criminal charges, was handed to the attorney general of the Republic of Cyprus on Tuesday.
Agence France-Presse/Getty Images
Polis Polyviou at Monday's news conference in Nicosia, with a woman whose twin sons died in the explosion.
Lawyer Polis Polyviou delivered his 643-page report on the incident to Mr. Christofias on Monday morning. Mr. Polyviou said the president of the Republic of Cyprus had failed to ensure basic security measures. He also dismissed the president's defense, given in testimony to the inquiry, that "like a cheated husband" Mr. Christofias had been the last to find out about the danger the munitions posed. "In this case I am not referring just to an institutional responsibility. In this case, I apportion serious and very heavy personal responsibility" to the president, Mr. Polyviou said, the Cyprus News Agency reported.

The public inquiry has deepened the government's embarrassment, as it emerged that Cyprus had kept the munitions in an effort not to anger Iran and Syria. Cyprus seized the Iranian munitions from a ship headed to Syria in 2009, enforcing a United Nations arms embargo. Mr. Polyviou said Monday that Mr. Christofias had told Syrian President Bashar al-Assad that the weapons would remain in Cyprus until they could be returned.
Mr. Polyviou said he accepted Mr. Christofias's assurance that he had no intention of returning the weapons. But "that assurance, which I think was completely wrong, contributed in [the weapons'] staying" in Cyprus, Mr. Polyviou said, according to Cyprus News Agency.
The harsh criticism of Mr. Christofias comes at a difficult moment for security in the eastern Mediterranean. Turkey has sent a research vessel and naval escort into Cypriot waters in an attempt to pressure Cyprus to halt exploration for natural gas. Cyprus has licensed U.S. independent Noble Energy Inc. to explore a potentially large natural-gas field close to Israeli waters, while Ankara says exploration should wait until Cyprus is reunified.
Turkey still has thousands of troops on the northern half of Cyprus, following a 1974 invasion on behalf of the island's ethnic Turkish minority.
The Cyprus government has had a minority in Parliament since August, when it lost its coalition partner. "It's going to be very difficult for him to survive" politically, Andreas Theophanous, professor of political economy at the University of Nicosia said Monday of Mr. Christofias. "He was already a lame-duck president."
"None of this is very well-timed, particularly given what is going on in the eastern Mediterranean at the moment. Christofias has tried to play down any oil-rush excitement in Cyprus, but he basically lacks any credibility now," said David Lea, senior Europe analyst at Control Risk, a London-based political risk consultancy.
After it seized the munitions, the government stored the roughly 100 crates on a naval base 150 meters from the Vassilikos power station, which supplied more than half the Republic of Cyprus's electricity.
The power station was destroyed in the blast, costing Cyprus an estimated €1 billion ($1.3 billion) as it was forced to buy energy from abroad. A study by the University of Cyprus in August forecast that the economy would shrink 2.4% this year, largely as a result of the explosion.
The government was already grappling with the banking sector's large exposure to Greece. In August, the Cypriot Parliament adopted a €180 million austerity package. Last month, Finance Minister Kikis Kazamias said the government's budget for 2012 includes another €840 million in spending cuts and tax increases.
Cyprus's government says it asked the U.N. to take the weapons but was rebuffed. The U.N. denied that, saying it had offered to send inspectors to assess the weapons but the inspectors were refused access.
Analysis after the explosion showed that the crates contained nitroglycerin, a notoriously unstable explosive agent, according to testimony Mr. Christofias gave the inquiry.
During the inquiry, Mr. Polyviou also accused officials of doctoring the minutes of a crucial meeting to show that they had asked that precautions be taken to secure the munitions, when they hadn't.