Some of the relatives of the 13 men killed in the July 11 explosion shouted “murderer” at Christofias as he made to leave the packed hall where the inquiry is being held.
Police intervened to protect the President, threatening the son of one of the dead naval officer’s with arrest. It was only the intervention of investigator Polys Polyviou that stopped the situation from escalating further.
The relatives had been angered by Christofias’ total denial of any responsibility for the debacle during his questioning.
“No one told me of the risks,” Christofias told the inquiry. “No I do not accept (personal responsibility), with all due respect.” He said the incident was the result of a “systems failure”.
Christofias was being quizzed by investigator Polys Polyviou on the events that led to the explosion of munitions seized in 2009 from a ship sailing from Iran to Syria, which not only claimed 13 lives but incapacitated the island’s main power station.
It was the first time in the history of the Republic that an incumbent president appeared before a public inquiry.
The President started his testimony by reading from a prepared 13-page document, in which he outlined the pressures Cyprus was under to confiscate the cargo, and the reaction from Syria which wanted the ship to be allowed to sail to its destination.
He then spoke of the issue of storing and handling the deadly cargo, the responsibility of which was assigned to the National Guard.
“It is clear in my perception that the whole incident constitutes a failure of the system,” Christofias said. “A failure of the operational and systemic procedures built through the decades on the bases of expediencies, beyond the principles of meritocracy and just administration.”
The president said he had not been briefed of the outcome of a February 7, 2011 meeting, which discussed the possibility of destroying the cargo, neither was he informed about a meeting that took place a week before the blast “after the great risk was identified.”
The President said neither was he informed about a request by the UN Security Council Sanctions Committee on Iran to send a delegation to Cyprus to inspect the cargo, which was stalled by the foreign ministry.
In a cabinet meeting that took place on July 11, after the blast, Christofias said: “I had told my cabinet … the President felt like a cheated husband, who was the last to know.”
He added that “everyone had underestimated the dangers”, and referred to a comment made by former Defence Minister Costas Papacostas at the time that the cargo was safe enough to store in a residential area.
Christofias also denied it was him who decided where to put the munitions, adding that he had never visited the Evangelos Florakis naval base at Mari, which neighbours the Vassilikos power station, before the blast.
“If I knew the proximity to the power station I would not have accepted them being stored there,” Christofias said.
“The head of the National Guard (army) told us that gunpowder wouldn’t explode … we later (post explosion) discovered nitroglycerine was mixed in with the gunpowder.”
The containers had been stacked together forming one huge block that was exposed to the elements for over two years.
Asked by Polyviou if he agreed that the foreign and defence ministers and the National Guard commander had responsibility, the President said “certainly. They have all assumed their responsibility and have resigned.”
Polyviou then put it to Christofias that it is an oxymoron for them to be responsible while their superior was not.
“How can he be responsible if he did not know,” Christofias said, referring to himself.
Polyviou said: “Either you knew and you did not take measures or you did not know because you did not ask; thus, either based on knowing and lack of decisions or based on not knowing and lack of decisions, one could claim that the President is left seriously exposed.”
Christofias said anyone could claim that. “Some want my head on a platter, but nobody spoke to me about the serious risks of this cargo and therefore they cannot attempt to offload (responsibility) onto the President of the Republic.”
He added that in the instances when he was informed of the matter “no one had spoken to me of serious dangers. Other people’s handling cannot burden the President.”