Lebanon in ‘state of emergency’ as Beirut blast death toll climbs

Lebanon in ‘state of emergency’ as Beirut blast death toll climbs
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An army helicopter drops water at the scene of Tuesday's massive explosion that hit the seaport of Beirut, Lebanon, Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2020. (AP)
Lebanon in ‘state of emergency’ as Beirut blast death toll climbs
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A man cleans a damaged mosque a day after an explosion hit the seaport of Beirut, Lebanon, Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2020. (AP)
Lebanon in ‘state of emergency’ as Beirut blast death toll climbs
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Volunteers gather aid supplies to be distributed for those affected by Tuesday's blast in Beirut's port area, Lebanon August 5, 2020. (Reuters)
Lebanon in ‘state of emergency’ as Beirut blast death toll climbs
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Smoke rises from the scene of an explosion that hit the seaport of Beirut, Lebanon, Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2020. (AP)
Lebanon in ‘state of emergency’ as Beirut blast death toll climbs
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A man walks by a destroyed building after a massive explosion in Beirut, Lebanon, Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2020. (AP)
Lebanon in ‘state of emergency’ as Beirut blast death toll climbs
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A survivor is taken out of the rubble after a massive explosion in Beirut, Lebanon, Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2020. (AP)
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Updated 05 August 2020

Lebanon in ‘state of emergency’ as Beirut blast death toll climbs

Lebanon in ‘state of emergency’ as Beirut blast death toll climbs
  • Toll expected to rise as worker search rubble for missing
  • Beirut mayor says Lebanon in grip of a “catastrophe“

BEIRUT: Lebanese rescue teams pulled out bodies and hunted for missing in the wreckage of buildings on Wednesday as investigations blamed negligence for a massive warehouse explosion that sent a devastating blast wave across Beirut, killing at least 135.
More than 5,000 people were injured in Tuesday’s explosion at Beirut port, Health Minister Hamad Hassan said, and up to 250,000 were left without homes fit to live in after shockwaves smashed building facades, sucked furniture out into streets and shattered windows miles inland.
Hassan said tens of people remained missing. Prime Minister Hassan Diab declared three days of mourning from Thursday.
The death toll was expected to rise from the blast, which officials blamed on a huge stockpile of highly explosive material stored for years in unsafe conditions at the port.
The explosion was the most powerful ever to rip through Beirut, a city still scarred by civil war that ended three decades ago and reeling from an economic meltdown and a surge in coronavirus infections. The blast rattled buildings on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, about 100 miles (160 km) away.

President Michel Aoun said 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate, used in fertilizers and bombs, had been stored for six years at the port without safety measures, after it was seized.
In an address to the nation during an emergency cabinet session, Aoun said: “No words can describe the horror that has hit Beirut last night, turning it into a disaster-stricken city.”
He said the government was “determined to investigate and expose what happened as soon as possible, to hold the responsible and the negligent accountable.”
An official source familiar with preliminary investigations blamed the incident on “inaction and negligence,” saying “nothing was done” by committees and judges involved in the matter to order the removal of hazardous material.
The cabinet ordered port officials involved in storing or guarding the material since 2014 to be put under house arrest, ministerial sources told Reuters. The cabinet also announced a two-week state of emergency in Beirut.
Ordinary Lebanese, who have lost jobs and watched savings evaporate in Lebanon’s financial crisis, blamed politicians who have overseen decades of state corruption and bad governance.
“This explosion seals the collapse of Lebanon. I really blame the ruling class,” said Hassan Zaiter, 32, a manager at the heavily damaged Le Gray Hotel in downtown Beirut.
The health minister said the death toll had climbed to 135, as the search for victims continued after shockwaves from the blast hurled some of the victims into the sea.
Relatives gathered at the cordon to Beirut port seeking information on those still missing. Many of those killed were port and custom employees, people working in the area or those driving nearby during the Tuesday evening rush hour.
The Red Cross was coordinating with the Health Ministry to set up morgues as hospitals were overwhelmed. Health officials said hospitals were struggling with the big influx of casualties and were running out of beds and equipment to attend to the injured and those in critical condition. Beirut’s Clemenceau Medical Center was “like a slaughterhouse, blood covering the corridors and the lifts,” said Sara, one of its nurses.
Beirut Governor Marwan Abboud told broadcaster LBC the blast had caused damage worth up to $5 billion, and possibly more, and left up to 250,000 people without homes.
“This is the killer blow for Beirut, we are a disaster zone,” said Bilal, a man in his 60s, in the downtown area.
Offers of international support poured in. Gulf Arab states, who in the past were major financial supporters of Lebanon but recently stepped back because of what they say is Iranian meddling, sent planes with medical equipment and other supplies. Iran offered food and a field hospital, ISNA news agency said.
The United States, Britain, France and other Western nations, which have been demanding political and economic change in Lebanon, also offered help. Germany, the Netherlands and Cyprus offered specialized search and rescue teams.
Two French planes were expected to arrive on Thursday with 55 rescuers, medical equipment and a mobile clinic. French President Emmanuel Macron will also visit Lebanon on Thursday. Other Arab and European countries are sending doctors, mobile hospitals and equipment.

For many it was a dreadful reminder of the 1975-1990 civil war that tore the nation apart and destroyed swathes of Beirut, much of which had since been rebuilt.
“This is a catastrophe for Beirut and Lebanon.” Beirut’s mayor, Jamal Itani, told Reuters while inspecting damage.
Officials did not say what caused the initial blaze at the port that set off the blast. A security source and media said it was started by welding work being carried out on a warehouse.
Taxi driver Abou Khaled said ministers “are the first that should be held accountable for this disaster. They committed a crime against the people of this nation with their negligence.”
The port district was left a tangled wreck, disabling the nation’s main route for imports needed to feed a nation of more than 6 million people.
Lebanon has already been struggling to house and feed refugees fleeing conflict in neighboring Syria and has no trade or other ties with its only other neighbor Israel.
“On a scale, this explosion is scaled down from a nuclear bomb rather than up from a conventional bomb,” said Roland Alford, managing director of British explosive ordnance disposal firm Alford Technologies. “This is huge.”
The blast prompted the Special Tribunal for Lebanon on Wednesday to postpone its verdict in the trial over the 2005 bombing that killed ex-Prime Minister Rafik Al-Hariri to Aug. 18. The tribunal’s decision had been expected this Friday.
The UN-backed court put on trial four suspects from the Iranian-backed Shiite Muslim group Hezbollah. Hariri and 21 others were killed by a big truck bomb on another part of the Beirut waterfront, about 2 km (about one mile) from the port.


UN envoy calls for greater sense of urgency in Syrian peace efforts

UN envoy calls for greater sense of urgency in Syrian peace efforts
Updated 23 January 2021

UN envoy calls for greater sense of urgency in Syrian peace efforts

UN envoy calls for greater sense of urgency in Syrian peace efforts
  • Geir Pederson wants enhanced international diplomacy, and tighter focus on progress in drafting new constitution
  • The fifth session of the Small Body of the Syrian Constitutional Committee begins in Geneva on Monday

NEW YORK: Geir Pedersen, the UN’s special envoy for Syria, on Friday called for “more serious and cooperative” international diplomacy as part of political efforts to improve the lives of the Syrian people and develop a vision for the future of their country.

Speaking ahead of the fifth session of the Small Body of the Syrian Constitutional Committee, which begins on Monday in Geneva, he also urged committee members to focus their efforts and work more effectively to speed up progress on constitutional reform.

Pedersen expressed hope that much-needed international engagement with the peace process is now possible.

“After all, despite the differences, key states are continuing to reaffirm their commitment to Resolution 2254,” he added, referring to the UN Security Council resolution, adopted in 2015, that calls for a ceasefire and political settlement in Syria.

Pedersen, who briefed the Security Council this week on the latest developments, highlighted the fact that five foreign armies are active in Syria and “violations of Syrian sovereignty and territorial integrity (have been) going on for years.”

Although the ceasefire agreement reached by Russia and Turkey in the northwest of the country resulted in a de-escalation of hostilities, Pedersen warned that this relative calm remains fragile.

UN Special Envoy for Syria Geir Pedersen. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens, File) 

“All of these issues cannot be sorted out by the Syrians alone,” he said. (They) need an international cooperation (and) a real exchange of views (among all parties).

“If that political will is lacking it would be very, very difficult to move this process forward ... if you leave this to the UN alone, we will not be able to succeed.”

Top on the agenda on Monday will be discussion of the basic principles of the Syrian constitution. Pedersen said he has been meeting with the two co-chairs of the committee on a regular basis, and has also had intensive discussions with the “Middle Third” civil-society group, which includes society activists and experts and other independents from inside and outside of Syria.

His experiences during the past year, he said, lead him to believe there is potential for finding common ground. No single actor or group of actors can impose its will on Syria or settle the conflict alone — they must work together, he added.

The time has now come for the co-chairs of the Constitutional Committee to organize and focus its efforts by establishing “more effective and operational working methods,” Pedersen said, so that they can begin to move forward from preparing constitutional reforms to actually drafting them, and agreeing on clear agendas and discussion topics for future meetings.

“There needs to be more urgency (in) delivering progress in this process,” he added.

As he saluted the work of civil society groups and “all the Syrians who do what they can to improve the situation on the ground and support a political process,” Pedersen singled out women in particular for praise. He has been particularly proactive in seeking input from the Women’s Advisory Board.

“It is a priority for all of us to make sure that we have full participation of Syrian women in the political process,” he said. “(Promoting) their core constitutional rights is central for me, as the facilitator of the work of the Constitutional Committee.”

Asked about plans for large-scale prisoner swaps, Pedersen said that although this is not on the agenda for the talks in Geneva this week, it is always part of his own agenda. The disappointment over the lack of progress on the issue so far means “that we should work even harder” on it, he added.

“This is a file that really has an impact on nearly every Syrian family, and it needs to be addressed,” he said. “(I) have appealed (for) more information on the missing. (We) need to see the early release of women, children, the elderly and the sick, and I think (nothing) should stop that from happening.”

The members of the Small Body of the Syrian Constitutional Committee are due to arrive in Geneva on Saturday, and Pedersen will consult with the co-chairs over the weekend before the main talks begin on Monday.

Asked whether he expects this latest round of negotiations to be a success for the UN, Pedersen said: “I really do not think this is the question; the question (is) whether it is a success for the Syrian people and (their) aspirations.

“My hope has been that the Constitutional Committee, if it is handled in the correct manner, could start to build trust and (be) a door-opener for a broader political process.

“But the (committee) cannot work in isolation ... we need political will from the different parties to be able to move forward.”

He added: “The (committee) is just one aspect, and it is not the one aspect that will solve the Syrian crisis. If we are to see changes in the situation on the ground, there are other factors that need to be discussed.”