The Lebanese government says it is putting an unspecified number of Beirut port officials under house arrest pending an investigation into how 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate came to be stored at the port for years.
The move comes amid speculation that negligence was to blame for Tuesday’s explosion that killed more than 100 people.
It was announced following a cabinet meeting Wednesday during which the government declared a two-week state of emergency, effectively giving the military full powers during this time.
President Michel Aoun vowed before the meeting that the investigation would be transparent and that those responsible will be punished.
“There are no words to describe the catastrophe that hit Beirut last night,” he said.
State prosecutor Ghassan Oueidat ordered security agencies to start an immediate investigation and collect all reports and letters related to the materials stored at the port as well as lists of people in charge of maintenance, storage and protection of the hangar.
Interior Minister Mohammed Fahmi had earlier told a local TV station that it appeared the blast was caused by the detonation of the ammonium nitrate that had been stored ever since it was confiscated from a cargo ship in 2014.
Ammonium nitrate is a common ingredient in fertilizer but can also be highly explosive.
‘Massive cleanup operation’
Meanwhile, residents of Beirut awoke to a scene of utter devastation after the explosion.
In the hard-hit Achrafieh district, civil defence workers and soldiers were working on locating missing people and clearing the rubble. At least one man was still pinned under stones from an old building that had collapsed. Volunteers hooked him up to an oxygen tank to help him breathe while others tried to free his leg.
The blast destroyed numerous apartment buildings, potentially leaving large numbers of people homeless at a time when many Lebanese have lost their jobs and seen their savings evaporate because of a currency crisis. The explosion also raises concerns about how Lebanon will continue to import nearly all of its vital goods with its main port devastated.
An official with the Lebanese Red Cross said at least 100 people were killed and more than 4,000 were wounded.
“There’s glass absolutely everywhere,” said CBC News contributor Rebecca Collard. “Basically, what we have this morning in Beirut is a massive cleanup operation.”
Rescue workers were attempting to dig through rubble to locate anyone trapped, Collard said, making it likely the current toll of dead and injured will increase.
Scores of people were missing, with relatives pleading on social media for help locating loved ones. An Instagram page called “Locating Victims Beirut” sprang up with photos of missing people, and radio presenters read the names of missing or wounded people throughout the night.
Among those confirmed dead was Nazar Najarian, a businessman who moved back to Lebanon from Montreal two years ago. Najarian’s wife and two kids are still living in Montreal, according to Aref Salem, a city councillor for the Montreal borough of Saint-Laurent.
Sami Basbous, also from the Montreal area, was not seriously injured but was shaken by the blast.
“My body was thrown and I felt breathless,” he said. “It really felt like nothing I’ve ever experienced before.”
It was unclear what caused the blast, which appeared to have been triggered by a fire and struck with the force of an earthquake. It was the most powerful explosion ever seen in the city, which was on the front lines of the 1975-1990 civil war.
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Lebanon was already on the brink of collapse amid a severe economic crisis that has ignited mass protests in recent months. Its hospitals are confronting a surge in coronavirus cases, and there were concerns the virus could spread further as people flooded into hospitals.
“There are so many problems,” said Basbous. “And to add this on top of that is just so catastrophic. People are really hurting.”
Nations chip in with search, aid
Saint George University Hospital, one of the major private hospitals in Beirut that had been receiving COVID-19 patients, was out of commission Wednesday after suffering major damage. A physician who identified himself as Dr. Emile said 16 staff and patients, including four nurses, died in the blast. He declined to give his last name out of privacy concerns.
The blast also wounded a number of United Nations peacekeepers stationed in the area. Bangladesh said 21 members of its navy were wounded, one critically. Italy, one of the top contributors to the UNIFIL mission, said one of its soldiers was wounded.
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Several countries have pledged aid in the aftermath of the blast, including Israel. The two countries have been in conflict for decades, and Israel fought a 2006 war with the Hezbollah militant group based in Lebanon.
French President Emmanuel Macron announced he would be travelling to Lebanon on Thursday to offer support for the country.
Lebanon is a former French protectorate and the countries retain close political and economic ties.
France is also sending emergency workers and several tons of aid.
The European Union is activating its civil protection system to round up emergency workers and equipment from across the 27-nation bloc, including firefighters and use of its satellite mapping system to help Lebanese authorities establish the extent of the damage.
Concerns about grain supply
Security forces cordoned off the port area on Wednesday as a bulldozer entered to help clear away debris. A young man begged troops to allow him to enter and search for his father, who has been missing since the blast occurred. He was directed to a port official who wrote down his details.
Drone footage shot Wednesday by The Associated Press showed that the blast tore open grain silos, dumping their contents into the debris and earth thrown up by the blast. Some 80 per cent of Lebanon’s wheat supply is imported, according to the U.S. Agriculture Department.
Estimates suggest some 85 per cent of the country’s grain was stored at the now-destroyed silos.
Lebanon’s state-run National News Agency quoted Raoul Nehme, the minister of economy and trade, as saying that all the wheat stored at the facility had been “contaminated” and couldn’t be used. However, he insisted Lebanon had enough wheat for its immediate needs. Nehme said Lebanon also would import more wheat.
Published at Wed, 05 Aug 2020 06:47:55 +0000