Beirut Blast Probe Looking Into Possible 'External Interference,' Lebanese President Says

Death toll rises as rescuers recover more bodies days after massive explosion at Beirut port, while the Lebanese government comes under mounting criticism

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Russian rescue teams search for survivors at Beirut port on August 7, 2020.
Russian rescue teams search for survivors at Beirut port on August 7, 2020.Credit: JOSEPH EID / AFP

Lebanon's president said on Friday an investigation into the biggest blast in Beirut's history would examine whether it was caused by a bomb or other external interference, as residents tried to rebuild their shattered lives after the explosion.

The search for those missing has intensified, as rescuers sifted rubble in a race to find anyone still alive after Tuesday's blast that killed 154, smashed up a swathe of the city and sent seismic shockwaves around the region.

"The cause has not been determined yet. There is a possibility of external interference through a rocket or bomb or other act," President Michel Aoun said in comments carried by local media and confirmed by his office.

He said it would also consider whether the explosion was due to negligence or an accident. He previously said highly explosive material had been stored in unsafe conditions for years at the port. A source has said an initial probe blamed negligence related to storage of the explosive material.

The damaged site of Tuesday's blast in Beirut's port area from the roof of his home in Beirut, Lebanon, August 7, 2020.
The damaged site of Tuesday's blast in Beirut's port area from the roof of his home in Beirut, Lebanon, August 7, 2020.Credit: HANNAH MCKAY/ REUTERS

The United States has previously said it has not ruled out an attack. Israel, which has fought several wars with Lebanon, has also previously denied it had any role.

Security forces fired teargas at a furious crowd in Beirut late on Thursday, as anger boiled over at the ruling elite, who have presided over a nation that faced economic collapse even before the deadly port blast that injured 5,000 people.

The small crowd, some hurling stones, marked a return to the kind of protests that had become a feature of life in Beirut, as Lebanese watched their savings evaporate and currency disintegrate, while government decision-making floundered.

"There is no way we can rebuild this house. Where is the state?" Tony Abdou, an unemployed 60-year-old.

Soldiers and rescue workers stand at the devastated site of the explosion at the port of Beirut, Lebanon August 6, 2020.
Soldiers and rescue workers stand at the devastated site of the explosion at the port of Beirut, Lebanon August 6, 2020.Credit: POOL New/ REUTERS

His family home is in Gemmayze, a district that lies a few hundred metres from the port warehouses where 2,750 tonnes of highly explosive ammonium nitrate was stored for years, a ticking time bomb near a densely populated area.

A security source and local media previously said the fire that caused the blast was ignited by warehouse welding work.

Search efforts continue

Rescue teams were still searching the rubble of Beirut's port for bodies on Friday, nearly three days after a massive explosion sent a wave of destruction through Lebanon's capital.

More bodies have been recovered in the last 24 hours. Lebanon's Health Minister Hamad Hasan said one in five of the some 5,000 people injured in Tuesday's blast had required hospitalisation, and 120 were in critical condition, state news agecy NNA reported.

The blast shredded a large grain silo, Lebanon's only port-based one, devastated neighborhoods near the port and left several city blocks littered with glass and rubble.

French and Russian rescue teams with dogs were searching the port area on Friday, the day after French President Emmanuel Macron paid a visit to the site, promising aid and vowing to press for reforms by Lebanon's long-entrenched political leaders.

The blast was apparently caused by the ignition of 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate, a chemical used for explosives and fertilizer, that had been stored at the port since it was confiscated from an impounded cargo ship in 2013.

Search and rescue teams have been sent from several countries to help locate survivors of the blast. Among those located in the rubble near the grain silo was Joe Akiki, a 23-year-old port worker who had been missing since the explosion.

A team of 55 French rescuers that began work Thursday has found four bodies, according to Col. Tissier Vincent, the head of the mission. Lebanese firefighters are also working at the demolished port, where bulldozers and excavators were churning through the rubble.

Dozens of people are still missing, and at the entrance to the port a family waited for news of a relative.

Some 300,000 people — more than 12 per cent of Beirut's population — are unable to return to their homes because of the explosion, which blew out doors and windows across the city and left many buildings uninhabitable. Officials have estimated losses at $10 billion to $15 billion.

Beirut's blast destroyed Lebanon's only port-based grains silo, with plans for another in the country's second largest port Tripoli shelved years ago due to a lack of funding, the UN's FAO representative in Lebanon, director of Tripoli port and a regional grain consultant told Reuters.

"There are smaller storage sites within the private sector millers because they have to store wheat before it is milled into flour," Maurice Saade, the Food and Agriculture Organization representative in Lebanon told Reuters. "In terms of grain silos, that was the only major one."

Damaged hospitals, already strained by the coronavirus pandemic, are still struggling to deal with the wounded.

A World Health Organization spokesman told a virtual United Nations briefing that damage to hospitals has removed 500 beds of capacity. Containers with thousands of personal protection equipment (PPE) items – used to prevent the spread of COVID-19 – have also been destroyed.

The investigation is focusing on port and customs officials, with 16 employees detained and others questioned. But many Lebanese say it points to much greater rot that permeates the political system and extends to the country's top leadership.

For decades, Lebanon has been dominated by the same political elites – many of them former warlords and militia commanders from the 1975-1990 civil war. The ruling factions use public institutions to accumulate wealth and distribute patronage to supporters. Thirty years after the end of the civil war, power outages are still frequent, trash often goes uncollected and tap water is largely undrinkable.

Even before the blast, the country was mired in a severe economic crisis that was also widely blamed on the political class.

Unemployment was soaring, and a collapse of the local currency wiped out many people's savings, That will make the task of rebuilding after the blast even more daunting.

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