July 29, 2011: STRATEGY PAGE
On July 11th, some 2,000 tons of Iranian munitions and explosives, stored in the open at a naval base in South Cyprus for the last two years, caught fire and exploded. The blast knocked out a nearby power plant (supplying 60 percent of the electricity in South Cyprus), killed over a dozen people, damaged hundreds of buildings and was totally avoidable. Munitions experts had warned the government against storing all those explosives in the open, under the hot Mediterranean sun, was dangerous. They were right.
Although most of these munitions were of recent manufacture, you cannot be too careful how you store, and handle, this stuff. For example, last year, four Ukrainian sailors were seriously injured when two 30mm cannon shells spontaneously exploded. Actually, those shells didn't go off entirely without warning. The navy reported that the shells were old, beyond their “use by” date, and were probably set off by vibrations ships generate during training exercises.
This is a common problem in countries that have long used ammunition bought from Russia. During the communist period, as per the Soviet custom, old ammunition was not destroyed, but kept around. Communist countries were poor. It made sense to keep those old mortar and artillery shells (plus bombs and military explosives) for the inevitable war with the enemies of socialism. But the chemical reactions taking place in propellants and explosives, once these items are manufactured, eventually cause dangerous side effects. Over time, the compounds, that make the propellants and explosives work, deteriorate. This renders the propellants and explosives useless or, in many cases, unstable and very dangerous. Expose even new munitions to the hot sun for two three Mediterranean Summers, and the stuff becomes more, well, spontaneously explosive.
This has resulted in many spontaneous explosions on Russian ships and in ammunition depots. These accidents also happen outside Russia. Three years ago, an Albanian ammunition processing facility north of the capital exploded. There were over 200 casualties, including at least nine dead (largely among the 4,000 civilians living nearby). Over 300 buildings were destroyed, and over 2,000 damaged. The facility was used to destroy old ammo, which is a condition for Albania to be allowed to join NATO. There were about 100,000 tons of old ammunition in Albania, and the destroyed facility dismantled 500-600 tons of the stuff each month. The explosion in Albania probably occurred during the process of extracting explosives from the old ammo. This can be tricky, as the least little spark, can set this stuff off. Worse, older ammo in an unstable state can go off without a spark.
This disaster was part of a trend. Four years ago, there was a large explosion in an ammo depot in the African nation of Mozambique. About a hundred died. Seven years ago, an even greater disaster occurred in Nigeria, when a munitions depot near the capital cooked off, killing over 200 people.
Russia has also had problems with elderly, and cranky, munitions. In the 1990s, there were several munitions depot explosions, some of them quite spectacular. Russia, however, tended to put these depots in isolated areas, so the casualties were low. However, the Russians took the hint, and disposed of huge quantities of Cold War surplus munitions.
How did all that stuff get to Cyprus in the first place? In January, 2009, a U.S. warship in the Gulf of Aden spotted a former Russian merchant ship, the Monchegorsk, that was then flying a Cypriot flag. The Monchegorsk had originally been spotted leaving an Iranian port, and heading for the Suez canal. Egyptian authorities were alerted and the Monchegorsk was forced into an Egyptian port to be searched. Munitions, believed headed for Gaza, were found hidden in the cargo. But the Monchegorsk was released because Department of Defense lawyers were uncertain if the weapons found are sufficient evidence that Iran was in violation of UN resolution 1747, and, even so, did anyone have the authority to seize anything. But once the ship exited the Suez canal, the U.S. persuaded Cyprus (which, technically, has control over the ship) to seize it when it passed Cyprus, and do a thorough search. Some 2,ooo tons of munitions were found, taken off the ship, and stored in Cyprus until the UN bureaucrats could decide what to do.
UN resolution (1747) prohibits Iran from exporting weapons. The exact wording of the resolution is; " Decides that Iran shall not supply, sell or transfer directly or indirectly from its territory or by its nationals or using its flag vessels or aircraft any arms or related materiel, and that all States shall prohibit the procurement of such items from Iran by their nationals, or using their flag vessels or aircraft, and whether or not originating in the territory of Iran. " The U.S. used 1747 as a license to mess with Iranian efforts to export weapons to its terrorist customers.
U.S. warships in Task Force 151 (the anti-piracy patrol in the Gulf of Aden) have been ordered to watch for ships that have taken on cargo in Iran, and then head through the Gulf of Aden for the Suez canal. Iran is believed to be increasing its efforts to smuggle weapons into Gaza for Hamas, a terrorist organization that has been supported by Iran since the 1990s. Such Iranian cargo ships have been caught carrying weapons to Gaza before. The Iranians try to either land the weapons on the Gaza coast, or smuggle them into Egypt and then through the smuggling tunnels under the Gaza/Egyptian border. But this time the weapons ended up in Cyprus, until they exploded.