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Ex-minister found guilty over Cyprus munitions blast

By Michele Kambas

NICOSIA (Reuters) - A former Cypriot defense minister was found guilty of manslaughter on Tuesday over a deadly munitions blast two years ago that killed 13 people and crippled the economy in the island's worst peacetime disaster.

A court ruled that Costas Papacostas, who served in the former communist government, bore direct responsibility for a sequence of failures to safeguard a cargo of confiscated Iranian munitions that exploded in the early hours of July 11, 2011.

Papacostas and three senior fire service officials found guilty of negligence will be sentenced on July 24.

A former foreign minister, Marcos Kyprianou, and one other defendant were cleared of all charges.

The blast at Vassilikos leveled Cyprus's largest power station, sending an already troubled economy into a deeper downward spiral that ended in a chaotic international bailout for the Mediterranean island two years later.

The Iranian-made munitions were bound for Syria when Cyprus intercepted the ship ferrying them there in 2009. They were stored on the island for being in violation of U.N. sanctions prohibiting Iranian arms exports.

Compressed gunpowder and shell casings were kept for months in scorching heat at a naval base adjacent to the power station and Papacostas ignored warnings from subordinates about the growing risks, the court said.

"We have no doubt the defendant was aware of the risks... but closed his eyes to the danger," presiding Criminal Court Judge Tefkros Economou said in his verdict.

Tensions briefly flared when the judge asked the defendants to stand as he read out the final verdicts.

"Justice has been sent to the gallows," shouted Poppi Christoforou, who lost her twin sons in the explosion.

REGIONAL POLITICS

Tuesday's ruling was the second damning verdict for the island's previous communist administration.

A first independent inquiry, released in October 2011, apportioned blame to both cabinet ministers and above all to then-President Demetris Christofias.

Christofias, who was immune from prosecution while in office, consistently denied any responsibility. He decided not to seek a second term in a February 2013 election.

The inquiries into the disaster gave an impression of a European Union member state which wanted to appease all sides in the affair, possibly on account of its close proximity to the Middle East and friendly ties with Arab nations.

Leaked WikiLeaks cables showed the communist government was initially reluctant to seize the munitions and only did so under U.S. pressure.

The cables showed it also stonewalled a U.N. inspection team and gave promises to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad that Cyprus would not hold on to the shipment indefinitely.

Rolling power cuts after the blast had an onerous impact on businesses and households and Cyprus has faced some of Europe's highest energy prices to pay for the rebuilding of Vassilikos.

The disaster also put talk of a financial bailout for the island, shut out of international financial markets in May 2011, into sharper focus.

"It made the bailout inevitable from 2011," said Alexander Apostolides, a lecturer in economics history at the European University Cyprus.

Cyprus only made its bailout request a year later, in June 2012. After protracted haggling over terms, Cyprus agreed a 10 billion euro aid package with its creditors in March that forced the closure of one bank and the seizing of deposits in a second.

(Reporting by Michele Kambas; Editing by Gareth Jones)

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