Lebanese foreign minister summons US envoy in growing row over her attack on Hezbollah

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Supporters of the Lebanese Shiite movements Hezbollah and Amal join a rally in the southern suburb of the capital Beirut on June 28, 2020 to protest a statement made by the US ambassador criticizing the group. (AFP / ANWAR AMRO)
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Lebanese President Michel Aoun, left, meets with US Ambassador to Lebanon Dorothy Shea, at the Presidential Palace in Baabda in this photo released on June 11, 2020 by the Lebanese government. (Lebanese Government via AP)
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Updated 29 June 2020

Lebanese foreign minister summons US envoy in growing row over her attack on Hezbollah

  • Diplomat earlier criticized the powerful Shiite movement Hezbollah
  • US ambassador Dorothy Shea described the ruling as a ‘really pathetic’ attempt to silence the media

BEIRUT: The US Ambassador to Lebanon has been summoned to the Foreign Ministry in Beirut on Monday amid a growing furor over the envoy’s criticism of Hezbollah.

The row began when the ambassador, Dorothy Shea, told the Saudi-owned news channel Al-Hadath that the US had “grave concerns about the role of Hezbollah, a designated terrorist organization.”

She added: “It has syphoned off billions of dollars that should have gone into government coffers so that the government can provide basic services to its people. It has obstructed some of the reforms the Lebanese economy so desperately needs.”

Mohamad Mazeh, a judge in the southern city of Tyre, was widely ridiculed on Saturday when he ruled that the envoy’s comments incited sectarian strife, and issued an order banning the media from reporting anything she said for a year.Judicial sources said the judge’s ruling had no legal force, the US State Department described it as “pathetic” and on Sunday Lebanese media ignored it.

Local TV stations broadcast new comments from the ambassador in which she described the judge’s decision as “unfortunate.” 

“I was contacted yesterday afternoon by a high-ranking and well-placed official in the Lebanese government who apologized, and said this ruling did not have proper standing,” Shea said. The official told her the government would “take the necessary steps to reverse it.”

Hezbollah is the main political force behind the Lebanese government. Washington considers the heavily armed pro-Iran movement to be a terrorist group.

Information Minister Manal Abdel Samad tweeted that while she understood the judge’s concerns about diplomats meddling in Lebanon’s internal affairs “no one had the right to prevent the media from covering news, or to curb press freedoms.”

In one of several media appearances on Sunday, Shea told broadcaster MTV that a senior government official had assured her the court did not have the authority to order the ban, and that the government would take steps to reverse it.

She described the ruling as a “really pathetic” attempt to silence the media, and said the government should focus more on implementing economic reforms.

“I would suggest that we all try to put this chapter behind us,” she said.

 


Lebanon family restless as it awaits missing ‘heroes’

Updated 11 August 2020

Lebanon family restless as it awaits missing ‘heroes’

  • Najib Hitti, 27, Charbel Hitti, 22 and Charbel Karam, 37, all relatives, left together in one firetruck to douse a port blaze believed to have sparked the August 4 mega-blast
  • The Hittis’ hopes of seeing their loved ones alive have dimmed since the army on Sunday said it had concluded search and rescue operations with little to no hope of finding survivors

QARTABA, Lebanon: Three firefighters. One Lebanese family. The same restless wait. Rita Hitti has not slept a wink since the Beirut port blast, when her firefighting son, nephew and son-in-law went missing.
“In one piece or several, we want our sons back,” she told AFP from the Hitti family’s home in the mountain town of Qartaba, north of Beirut.
“We have been waiting for the remains for six days,” she added, dark circles under her eyes.
Najib Hitti, 27, Charbel Hitti, 22 and Charbel Karam, 37, all relatives, left together in one firetruck to douse a port blaze believed to have sparked the August 4 mega-blast that killed 160 people and wounded at least 6,000 others across town.
They were among the first rescuers at the scene. They have not been heard of since.
Near the entrance to their Qartaba home, the three men are praised as “heroes” in a huge banner unfurled over a wall.
The double exposure shot shows them in the foreground dressed sharply in suits.
In the background, the blast’s now-infamous pink plume rises above their heads as they try to douse a fire.
An eerie calm filled the stone-arched living room, where dozens of relatives and neighbors gathered around Rita, the mother of Najib Hitti.
The women were mum, the men whispered between themselves, the young shuffled in and out of the room, quietly.
Karlen, Rita’s daughter, looked among the most sombre, with her husband Charbel Karam, brother Najib and cousin Charbel all missing.
Sitting next to her mother on the couch, she fought back tears and did not say a single word.
The Hittis’ hopes of seeing their loved ones alive have dimmed since the army on Sunday said it had concluded search and rescue operations with little to no hope of finding survivors.
The health ministry has said the number of missing stands at less than 20, while the army announced it had lifted five corpses from beneath the rubble.
A large blaze was still ripping through the blast site when the Hittis and other relatives of port employees dashed to the disaster zone to check on their loved ones.
But they were stopped by security forces.
“I told them I would know my boys from their smell,” Rita said she told an officer who barred her from the site.
“Let me enter to search for them and when I whiff their smell I will know where they are,” the mother said she pleaded.
Ever since, her hopes have gradually dwindled, but her anger is boiling.
Lebanese authorities have pledged a swift investigation but the exact cause of the blast remains unclear.
Authorities say it was triggered by a fire of unknown origin that broke out in a port warehouse where a huge pile of highly volatile ammonium nitrate fertilizer had been left unsecured for years.
Whatever the cause of the fire was, the popular consensus is that the blame rests squarely on the shoulders of officials in charge of the port as well those who have ruled Lebanon country for decades.
“We gave them heroes and they returned them to us as ‘martyrs’,” Rita said, scoffing at the label officials have used to brand blast casualties.
“What martyrs? What were they protecting? The noxious things (authorities) were hiding in the port?” she asked rhetorically.
“They are martyrs of treachery.”
George, father of Charbel Hitti, also rushed to the blast site to look for his son and relatives after the explosion.
“I started to scream their names: Najib, Charbel... I was like a mad man,” he told AFP.
“We waited until 6 in the morning the next day for clues to what happened,” he said.
“In the end, I started crying.”
He did manage, however, to get one piece of information from a port security official close to the family who was at the scene of the blaze when the firefighting team first arrived on August 4.
The security official had told him that the firefighters were trying to break open the door to the ammonium nitrate warehouse because they could not find the keys before the explosion ripped the whole place apart.
A week has since passed and George said hopes of finding the three men alive have faded.
Assuming they are dead, George said he now wants one thing: “We just want DNA test results that are compatible with those of Charbel, Najib and Charbel,” he said.
“Imagine. This is everything we now wish for.”