Thu, Jul 14, 2011 - Page 6 News List

Protest in Cyprus turns violent

KICKING UP A STINK:An invasion of the presidential palace followed a peaceful march by about 10,000 people carrying placards reading: ‘Negligence is criminal’

AP, NICOSIA

Cyprus police said they had arrested 20 people after demonstrators angry at an explosion in which 12 people died tried to breach the gates leading to the presidential palace in the capital.

Police yesterday said the arrests occurred late on Tuesday during a protest over what demonstrators said was official negligence in Monday’s explosion of seized gunpowder stored at Evangelos Florakis naval base, south of Nicosia.

Protesters chanting: “The people demand that the murderers are thrown in jail” were stopped at an inner gate about 100m from the palace by police.

Police said protesters crowded at a palace exit hurled rocks, flares and Molotov cocktails at riot police, who responded with tear gas. Five police officers were slightly injured.

Youths later set fire to rubbish bins outside the palace grounds.

It was unclear whether Cypriot President Dimitris Christofias was in the building.

Meanwhile, funeral services for eight of the 12 dead, who included the navy chief, were being held yesterday.

Monday’s blast also wrecked the island’s main power plant and forced the resignations of the defense minister and the military chief.

Many parts of the island are still intermittently without electricity and officials said it would take months before the power station — which provides more than half the island’s power — is brought back fully online.

Government spokesman Stefanos Stefanou said Greek experts have already joined Cyprus police and military investigators in scouring the rubble for clues and French officials were en route. Authorities have ruled out sabotage.

The probe comes amid a torrent of criticism over how the 100 containers — most of them filled with gunpowder — had been stored.

Tuesday’s invasion of the palace followed a peaceful march by about 10,000 people shouting slogans and carrying placards reading: “Negligence is criminal.”

The protest was organized online, and spread through social media and mobile phone text messages.

“We’re here to protest the irresponsibility of our government,” Nectaria Mihail, 30, said. “All [officials] care about is their cushy positions and money, they should be ashamed of themselves.”

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 UN 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.

“Stefanou said the government had sought to transport the containers to either Malta or Germany, but received no reply from the UN Security Council, whose authorization he said was needed to do so.

Fotis Fotiou, a spokesman for the governing coalition, said: “It is obvious that criminal negligence” caused the “national tragedy.”

“There must be punishment,” he said.

In a written statement issued late on Tuesday, Stefanou said a police-led criminal investigation into the blast would run concurrently with another probe to be carried out by a committee Christofias will appoint.

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