Beirut explosion: Lebanese investigation into devastation after explosion leaves at least 100 dead and thousands injured

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BEIRUT – Investigators investigating the deadly explosion that ravaged Beirut on Wednesday focused on possible negligence in storing tons of highly explosive fertilizer in a warehouse by the water’s edge, while the government ordered the house arrest of several port officials. International aid flights began arriving as Lebanese leaders struggled to cope with the widespread damage and shocking consequences of Tuesday’s explosion, which the health ministry said killed 135 people and injured around 5 000 others.

Public anger has mounted against the ruling elite who are accused of the chronic mismanagement and neglect that led to the disaster. The Port of Beirut and the customs office are known to be one of the most corrupt and lucrative institutions in Lebanon, where several factions and politicians, including Hezbollah, dominate.

The investigation focuses on how and why 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate, a highly explosive chemical used in fertilizers, were stored at the facility for six years, and why nothing was done about it.

Losses from the explosion are estimated at between $ 10 billion and $ 15 billion, Beirut Governor Marwan Abboud told Saudi broadcaster Al-Hadath, adding that nearly 300,000 people were homeless.

“Beirut as we know it is gone and people will not be able to rebuild their lives,” said Amy, a woman who swept the glass from a small alley next to a large building that served as a hall. exhibition for a famous Lebanese designer and has been a neighborhood landmark.

” It’s hell. How are (people) going to survive. What will they do? She said, accusing officials of their lack of accountability and “stupidity.”

Hospitals were overwhelmed by the wounded. The one damaged in the blast had to evacuate all of his patients to a nearby field for treatment.

It was the worst explosion to hit Lebanon, a country whose history is filled with destruction – from a civil war from 1975 to 1990, conflicts with Israel and periodic terrorist attacks.

Lebanon was already on the brink of collapse amid a severe economic crisis and the coronavirus pandemic. Many have lost their jobs and seen their savings evaporate due to a currency crisis. Food security is a concern, as the country imports almost all of its vital goods and its main port is now devastated. The government is strapped for cash.

A senior U.S. Department of Defense official and member of the U.S. intelligence community said there was no indication that the explosion was the result of an attack by a nation state or proxy forces. Both spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the intelligence briefings publicly. They told AP that at present the explosion appears to have been caused by improper storage of explosives.

Fueling speculation that negligence was the cause of the crash, an official letter circulating online showed that the head of the customs department had repeatedly warned over the years that the huge stockpile of ammonium nitrate stored in the port was a danger and had asked the legal authorities for a rule on a way to remove it.

Ammonium nitrate is a potentially explosive fertilizer component. The 2,750-ton cargo had been stored at the port since it was confiscated from a ship in 2013, and on Tuesday it was said to have exploded after a fire broke out nearby.

The 2017 letter from the chief of customs to a judge could not be immediately confirmed, but prosecutor Ghassan Oueidat ordered security agencies to immediately open an investigation into all letters relating to materials stored at the port, as well as on the lists of those responsible for maintenance, storage and protection of the hangar.

In the letter, the customs chief warned of the “dangers if the materials remain where they are, affecting the safety of (port) workers” and asked the judge for advice. He said five similar letters were sent in 2014, 2015 and 2016. The letter proposes that the material be exported or sold to a Lebanese explosives company. We don’t know if there was a response.

President Michael Aoun vowed ahead of a Cabinet meeting that the investigation would be transparent and those responsible would be punished.

“There are no words to describe the disaster that hit Beirut last night,” he said.

After the meeting, the Cabinet ordered an unknown number of Beirut Port officials to be under house arrest pending investigation.

The government also said public schools and some hotels would be open for the homeless and promised unspecified compensation for the victims.

With the port of Beirut destroyed, the government said imports and exports would be secured elsewhere, mainly in the northern city of Tripoli and the southern port of Tire.

There were signs that public anger was going beyond port officials to join Lebanon’s long-standing ruling class. Political factions have divided control over public institutions, including the port, using them for the benefit of their supporters, with little real development. This has resulted in crumbling infrastructure, power outages and poor services.

“May the Virgin Mary destroy them and their families,” Joseph Qiyameh, 79-year-old grocery store owner, said of the management. The explosion damaged her store, his wife was hospitalized with injuries she sustained at the house next door, and her arm was injured. He doesn’t have the money to fix his business, with his savings locked in the banks by the controls imposed during the financial crisis.

The Sisters of the Rosary hospital was shut down by the explosion, one of the nuns was killed and three others seriously injured.

“In an instant, there was no more hospital. Everything is gone, ”said one of the nuns, injured in the leg.

Residents faced a scene of utter devastation on Wednesday, with smoke still rising from the harbor. The explosion tore a crater 200 meters (yards) through one filled with seawater, as if the Mediterranean had taken a bite out of the harbor and engulfed buildings with it. Much of downtown was littered with damaged cars and debris.

AP drone footage showed the blast tore through a silo structure, dumping its contents into the debris. Estimates suggest that around 85% of the country’s grain is stored there.

Economy and Trade Minister Raoul Nehme said all wheat was contaminated and unusable. But he insisted that Lebanon had enough for its immediate needs and that it would import more, according to the state news agency.

Two French relief and rescue planes were heading for Beirut and French President Emmanuel Macron was due to arrive on Thursday to lend his support to the former protectorate. The countries maintain close political and economic ties.

Several planes of medical equipment and supplies from Greece, Kuwait, Qatar and elsewhere have arrived at Beirut International Airport. Turkey has sent search and rescue teams, humanitarian aid, medical supplies and a field hospital, its foreign ministry said. The EU was planning to send firefighters with vehicles, dogs and equipment designed to find people trapped in debris.

Associated Press editors Sarah El Deeb and Hassan Ammar in Beirut, Jon Gambrell in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and Joseph Krauss in Jerusalem contributed.

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