Deadly Beirut blast could have been missile attack or bomb, says president

Michel Aoun questioned how the explosive materials came to be offloaded at the port, who was responsible for keeping them there and whether the blast was an accident or deliberate. (AFP)
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Updated 07 August 2020

Deadly Beirut blast could have been missile attack or bomb, says president

  • Michel Aoun: ‘The incident might be a result of negligence or external intervention through a missile or a bomb’
  • He said Macron was ‘outraged’ by what happened, investigation would target all directly responsible

BEIRUT: A devastating explosion that destroyed much of Beirut might have been the result of a missile attack or bomb, Lebanese President Michel Aoun said, as the death toll from the blast rose to 154.

More than 2,700 tons of ammonium nitrate had been sitting in a port warehouse for six years, but there have been conflicting accounts about why Lebanese authorities decided to empty the shipment of explosive material. The vessel carrying the flammable cargo was heading from Georgia to Mozambique when it stopped in the Lebanese port to load up on iron, according to the ship’s captain.

By Friday, 19 suspects had been arrested and Lebanon’s former director general of customs Chafic Merhy had been questioned by military police.

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Lebanese President Michel Aoun said: “The incident might be a result of negligence or external intervention through a missile or a bomb, and I have asked French President Emmanuel Macron to provide us with aerial photos to determine whether there were planes or missiles, and if the French did not have such photos then we might seek them from other states to determine if there was a foreign assault,” said Aoun, referring to a flying visit from the French leader to Lebanon after the tragedy occurred.

The president said that Macron was “outraged” by what had happened and that the investigation would target all those who were directly responsible. Lebanon’s courts would try all officials regardless of their ranking, Aoun added.

The president told journalists that there was a lot of interest about how the explosive materials were emptied in the port, who was responsible for keeping them stored there for six years and whether the blast was an accident or deliberate.

Health Minister Hamad Hasan said the number of the injured people had risen to 5,000 according to hospital records and that 20 percent needed hospitalization, while 120 were in critical condition. The number of injured could be much higher, especially since hundreds of people went to pharmacies, dispensaries, or private clinics for treatment and nobody registered their names.

A search is still underway for eight missing silo employees: Ghassan Hasrouty, Joe Andoun, Shawki Alloush, Hassan Bachir, Khalil Issa, Charbel Karam, Charbel Hitti, and Najib Hitti. French rescue teams were able to locate six of them through scanners inside the elevator under the silos building.

Civil Defense and rescue teams found the body of Joe Akiki on Thursday midnight in one of the silo cellars. The bodies of Ali Mcheik and Ibrahim Al-Amin, two silo workers, have also been found. 

But the possibility of finding survivors looked slim on Friday, according to a military source, despite the fact that Russian and French rescue teams detected signals from a mobile phone belonging to one of the missing individuals. 

Lebanese Army Commander Gen. Joseph Aoun inspected the local and foreign search and rescue teams in the Port of Beirut, which has been declared a restricted area. Residents reported thefts in damaged households and shops during the evenings, especially since the damaged areas have lost power. 

Mireille Girard, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) representative in Lebanon, said the agency had decided to put its stocks of shelter equipment, plastic sheets, emergency tents and tens of thousands of other basic relief items at people’s disposal.

“More than 300,000 people have had their residence fully or partially damaged due to the explosion, which caused them to get displaced,” she added.

Volunteers are continuing to clear out damaged homes, businesses and places of worship, removing huge quantities of broken glass, as international aid began arriving in Lebanon.

Countries in the Gulf Cooperation Council have provided hospitals with medical supplies, given the homeless food and subsistence aid, and set up field hospitals in affected areas and in the capital’s downtown area.

UNICEF said that 100,000 Lebanese children have lost their homes due to the explosion in the Port of Beirut, and that 120 schools serving 55,000 children were damaged.

Patriarch John X Yazigi, who is primate of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and All The East, moved from his headquarters in Syria to Lebanon and inspected hospitals and the patriarchate’s other institutions. 

The US is donating more than $17 million in aid to Lebanon, in addition to financial assistance to the Lebanese Red Cross, while the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs said it will provide tents, beds, blankets, and other aid through the Japan International Cooperation Agency.

The UK said that HMS Enterprise would sail to Lebanon to assess the damage in the Port of Beirut  and help restore normal port operations, along with immediate military and civilian aid worth more than £5 million ($6.5 million).

Lebanese Finance Minister Ghazi Wazni said: “Lebanon is in a state of emergency and there is no cover for anyone, and the judiciary does not need permission to sue anyone.” 


Iraqis gather in Baghdad to mark anti-government protests anniversary

Updated 4 min 10 sec ago

Iraqis gather in Baghdad to mark anti-government protests anniversary

  • Protesters waved the Iraqi flag and chanted “free revolutionaries"

BAGHDAD: A few hundred Iraqis gathered in Baghdad’s central Tahrir square on Thursday to mark the anniversary of anti-government unrest that erupted last year and to put pressure on the authorities to meet their demands.
Protesters waved the Iraqi flag and chanted “free revolutionaries, we will continue the path.”
Some sang patriotic songs while clapping.
“We are here to start the revolution again...We haven’t forgotten about the blood of the martyrs,” said Abbas Younis, 25, wearing an Iraqi flag as a cape and a surgical mask.
More than 560 people, mostly unarmed demonstrators but also some members of the security forces, have been killed since a spate of popular unrest began on Oct. 1, 2019, with both security forces and unidentified gunmen shooting people dead.
London-based Amnesty International called on the Iraqi government on Thursday to do more to “deliver justice to the hundreds killed in the course of exercising their right to peaceful assembly.
“Find the missing, deliver justice for lives lost,” it said.
Protesters, most of them young, are demanding an overhaul of a political system they see as profoundly corrupt and keeping most Iraqis in poverty.
The protests have shaken the country out of two years of relative calm following the defeat of Islamic State insurgents.
Infighting between political parties clinging to power has fueled the crisis and threatens to kindle more unrest.
Last year’s protests caused the resignation of Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, who was replaced in May by Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, who pledged to investigate the deaths and incarceration of hundreds of protesters.
Demonstrators on Thursday gave the government until Oct. 25 to meet their demands by Oct. 25 or face a general strike.
“Our demands are simple and legitimate...We demand the killers of the protesters be prosecuted,” said Mustafa Makki.
Dressed in combat trousers and wearing a shirt with an image of a slain protester and a necklace made out of an empty tear gas canister, the 24-year-old said he had four bullet wounds, and one of them had cost him his vision in his left eye.
Later on Thursday, dozens took to the streets in the southern cities of Diwaniyah and Najaf, waving the Iraqi flag and carrying photographs of demonstrators killed last year.
Kadhimi in July called an early general election for June 6, 2021, roughly a year ahead of when it would normally be held, a central demand of the protesters. But Iraqi’s parliament must still ratify the election date and amend the election law.
Kadhimi and President Barham Salih pledged to meet the demands of the protesters. “We affirm our loyalty to our people and to the roadmap imposed by the blood and scarifies of its youth,” Kadhimi said in a statement.