Beirut explosion: Port officials under house arrest as rescue efforts continue


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Media caption“Now I am shaking, up and down”

A number of Beirut port officials are under house arrest pending an investigation into Tuesday’s massive explosion, according to the Lebanese government.

The explosion killed at least 135 people and injured more than 4,000 others. A two week state of emergency began.

President Michel Aoun said the explosion was caused by 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate stored unsafe in a warehouse.

Customs chief Badri Daher said his agency had requested that the chemical be removed, but “that did not happen.”

“We leave it to the experts to determine the reasons,” he said.

Ammonium nitrate is used as a fertilizer in agriculture and as an explosive.

Opening an emergency cabinet meeting on Wednesday, President Aoun said, “No words can describe the horror that hit Beirut last night, turning it into a disaster city.”

What triggered the explosion?

The ammonium nitrate was said to have been in a warehouse in the Port of Beirut for six years after being unloaded from a seized ship in 2013.

The Beirut port chief and the head of the customs administration both told local media that they had written to the court on several occasions asking for the chemical to be exported or sold to keep the port safe.

Port general manager Hassan Koraytem told OTV they knew the material was dangerous when a court first ordered it to be stored in the warehouse, “but not to this degree. “.

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Media captionMother in labor during the Beirut explosion

Lebanon’s Supreme Defense Council has promised that those found responsible will face the “maximum penalty” possible.

Economy Minister Raoul Nehme told the BBC: “I think this is incompetence and very mismanagement and there is a lot of responsibility from management and probably from previous governments. We do not intend, after such an explosion, to remain silent on who is responsible for what. ”

House arrest would apply to all port officials “who dealt with the storage business. [the] ammonium nitrate, keeping it and managing its paperwork ”since June 2014, said Information Minister Manal Abdel Samad.

The move is an attempt by the government to show the Lebanese people that they are serious about enforcing accountability, said BBC Arab affairs editor Sebastian Usher.

But many will reject it, because they effectively accuse the entire political elite of guilt because of their presumption of negligence, incompetence and corruption, adds our correspondent.

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Media captionRami Ruhayem visited Gemmayze, the residential area closest to the port

The ammonium nitrate arrived on a Moldovan-flagged vessel, the Rhosus, which entered the port of Beirut after suffering technical problems during its voyage from Georgia to Mozambique, according to, which deals with legal matters related to navigation.

The Rhosus was inspected, banned from leaving and soon after abandoned by its owners, prompting several lawsuits. Its cargo was being stored in a port warehouse for security reasons, according to the report.

Learn more about the explosion in Beirut

What are the latest rescue efforts?

Security forces cordoned off a large area around the blast site, and rescuers searched for bodies and survivors under the rubble as boats searched the waters off the coast. Dozens of people are still missing.

Public Health Minister Hamad Hassan said the Lebanese health sector lacked beds and the necessary equipment to treat the injured and treat critically ill patients.

He said a “large number of children” had been rescued but added he feared the death toll would rise further.

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The explosion devastated the port area of ​​Beirut

Saint-Georges Hospital near the site of the explosion was severely damaged and several staff members were killed. Three hospitals in Beirut have been closed and two others are only partially operational, the World Health Organization (WHO) said. The agency said it would airlift medical supplies to Lebanon on Wednesday evening.

Meanwhile, many buildings and houses have been reduced to an uninhabitable mess of glass and up to 300,000 people have been left homeless, said Beirut Governor Marwan Aboud.

A number of countries have offered humanitarian assistance. Three French planes are expected to arrive with 55 rescuers, medical equipment and a mobile clinic equipped to treat 500 people, and President Emmanuel Macron will visit on Thursday.

The EU, Russia, Tunisia, Turkey, Iran and Qatar are all sending aid. The UK is also ready to send medical experts and humanitarian aid, Foreign Minister Dominic Raab said.

Nitrate d’ammonium

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  • Common industrial chemical used primarily as a fertilizer in agriculture
  • Also one of the main components of explosives used in mining
  • Not explosive per se, ignites only under the right circumstances
  • When it explodes, it can release toxic gases, including nitrogen oxides and ammonia gas
  • Strict rules on how to store it safely: the site must be fireproof and not have drains, pipes or other channels in which ammonium nitrate could accumulate

What is the context?

The explosion comes at a sensitive time for Lebanon. With the increase in Covid-19 infections, hospitals were already struggling to cope. Today, they have to treat thousands of wounded.

The country is also going through the worst economic crisis since the 1975-1990 civil war, and tensions were already high with street protests against the government. People face daily power cuts, a lack of clean water and limited public health care.

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About 300,000 people had to leave damaged homes

Lebanon imports most of its food and large quantities of grain stored in the port have been destroyed, raising fears of widespread food insecurity. The future of the port itself is in doubt because of the destruction caused.

President Aoun announced the government would release £ 100bn (£ 50.5m; $ 66m) in emergency funds, but the impact of the explosion on the economy is expected to be long-lasting.

The explosion occurred near the scene of a massive car bomb attack that killed former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005. A verdict in the trial of four men accused of orchestrating the attack was awaited Friday in a special court in the Netherlands, but that was postponed to August 18 out of respect for the victims of Tuesday’s explosion.

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