LARNACA, Cyprus – Court proceedings began in Cyprus Monday into last year's explosion of confiscated Iranian gunpowder that killed 13 people and triggered a political crisis that damaged the presidency of Dimitris Christofias.
Eight people face charges of manslaughter and negligence causing death, including ex-Foreign Affairs Minister Markos Kyprianou and ex-Defense Minister Costas Papacostas. The manslaughter charge carries a maximum life in prison.
Both men resigned in the wake of the July 11 blast that nearly ruined the island's largest power station and touched off weeks of street protests over what many saw as his government's botched handling of the affair.
Kyprianou and Papacostas appeared in a Larnaca courtroom alongside all the co-accused that included senior National Guard and Fire Department officers, except former National Guard Chief Petros Tsalikides, a Greek national.
The court approved a state prosecutor's request for an arrest warrant against Tsalikides and postponed all proceedings until May 18. All the accused were released on €150,000 ($198,000) bail.
Police officers had to restrain some victims' relatives from charging the accused's vehicles as they arrived at the courts complex. One black-clad man shouted "murderers" while being held back by police.
Kyprianou had previously said that he believed the case to be a politically motivated witch hunt aimed at finding scapegoats for the disaster.
A public inquiry into the island's worst peacetime military disaster found that the gunpowder packed in some 98 containers had spontaneously combusted after becoming unstable from prolonged exposure to wide temperature swings. The containers had been left piled in an open field inside a naval base for more than two years.
The munitions were confiscated in February 2009 from a Cypriot-flagged ship suspected of transporting them from Iran to Palestinian militants in Gaza through Syria in breach of a United Nations ban on Iranian arms exports.
The inquiry's 650-page report detailed a complex and confusing web of meetings and consultations at the top echelons of government about what to do with the gunpowder so as not to upset either Syria or Iran.
It concluded that Christofias was primarily to blame for the circumstances that led to the explosion. Christofias rejected the nonbinding findings.