FBI to join Beirut blast probe, Lebanon must end ‘empty promises’

University students, who volunteered to help in the clean-up, pass in front of a building that was damaged by last week's explosion, in Beirut, Lebanon, Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2020. (AP)
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Updated 13 August 2020

FBI to join Beirut blast probe, Lebanon must end ‘empty promises’

  • David Hale: The FBI will soon join Lebanese and international investigators at the invitation of the Lebanese to help answer questions about the circumstances that led up to this explosion
  • Lebanese President Michel Aoun has said the investigation will look into whether the cause was negligence, an accident or possibly “external interference”

BEIRUT: A top US diplomat said on Thursday the FBI would join a probe of the massive Beirut explosion that killed at least 172 people, urging change in Lebanon to “make sure something like this never happens again.”
On a tour of a demolished Beirut neighborhood, US Undersecretary for Political Affairs David Hale said Lebanon needed “economic and fiscal reforms, an end to dysfunctional governance and to empty promises.”
The explosion at Beirut port injured 6,000 people and forced around 300,000 out of their homes in the city, which was already sinking deep into financial crisis. Some 30-40 people remain missing.
Authorities have blamed the Aug. 4 blast on a huge stockpile of ammonium nitrate stored for years at the port without safety measures.
“The FBI will soon join Lebanese and international investigators at the invitation of the Lebanese to help answer questions about the circumstances that led up to this explosion,” Hale said on Thursday.
Lebanese President Michel Aoun has said the investigation will look into whether the cause was negligence, an accident or possibly “external interference.”
Aoun has asked France for satellite imagery for the probe. A UK Royal Navy vessel was also deployed to Beirut to survey the site.
An Israeli seismological expert said on Thursday the explosion was preceded by a series of blasts, the last of which was combustion of fireworks.
Authorities have estimated losses from the blast at $15 billion, a bill Lebanon cannot pay: it already defaulted on its enormous sovereign debt in March and IMF talks had stalled.
Humanitarian aid has poured in. But foreign countries that once helped have made clear they will not give funds to help Lebanon out of economic collapse without reforms to tackle state corruption and waste.
Hale, the No. 3 US diplomat, said Washington would back any new government that “reflects the will of the people” and enacts reforms. The fallout from the explosion forced the cabinet to resign this week.
But agreement on a new one could be daunting in a country with factional rifts and a sectarian power-sharing system. Public anger has grown at a political elite in power for decades, which many blame for the country’s woes.
The now-caretaker government came to office in January with backing from various political parties, including the heavily armed Shiite Muslim Hezbollah. Together with its allies, they have a majority of seats in parliament.
The United States classifies Hezbollah, which is backed by Tehran, as terrorist. Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif landed in Beirut on Thursday evening, local media said.
Security forces were heavily deployed in Beirut on Thursday, stopping protesters from reaching a legislative session.
“They are all criminals, they are the ones who caused this catastrophe, this explosion,” said protester Lina Boubess, 60.
“Isn’t it enough that they stole our money, our lives, our dreams and the dreams of our children? What more do we have to lose?“
Parliament approved an earlier government decision declaring a state of emergency, which activists criticized as an attempt to suppress dissent. It also confirmed the resignations of eight MPs who quit after the blast.


Lebanon finds four bodies after deadly sea crossing

Updated 21 September 2020

Lebanon finds four bodies after deadly sea crossing

  • UN peacekeepers retrieved one body and rescued 36 people from a boat in trouble in international waters off the Lebanese coast
  • Families of the survivors said the boat had been adrift without food or water for around a week
BEIRUT: Lebanon has retrieved the bodies of four people including a child after they tried to flee the crisis-hit country by sea on an overloaded dinghy, the civil defense said Monday.
A week ago, UN peacekeepers retrieved one body and rescued 36 people from a boat in trouble in international waters off the Lebanese coast.
Families of the survivors said the boat had been adrift without food or water for around a week, during which time several passengers had died or jumped overboard to find help.
The bodies are presumed to be from the same ill-fated crossing.
Since Friday, “we have retrieved four bodies — belonging to two Lebanese, one of whom was a child, a young Indian man and a Syrian man,” Samir Yazbek, the head of the civil defense’s sea rescue unit, told AFP.
The bodies were found in four separate locations off the north and south coasts of the country, and the search was ongoing, he added.
The UN refugee agency said last week that 25 Syrians, eight Lebanese and three people of other nationalities had been rescued from the boat.
It is unclear how many men, women and children originally clambered aboard the dinghy, and therefore how many are still missing.
On Saturday, the navy said it would step up its searches within and outside Lebanon’s territorial waters to find any other victims.
Relatives of those who went missing from the impoverished north Lebanese city of Tripoli say the people smuggler involved in the crossing has dropped off the radar since the tragedy.
They have filed three legal complaints against the man, who they say is a well-known figure in the community.
A military source on Saturday said a person acting as an intermediary between passengers and the boat owner had been arrested.
In recent weeks, dozens of Lebanese and Syrians have tried to make the perilous sea journey from Lebanon to the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, authorities on both sides say.
The Republic of Cyprus, a European Union member, lies just 160 kilometers (100 miles) away.
Lebanon is in the throes of its worst economic crisis in decades, compounded since February by the novel coronavirus pandemic.
It is also reeling from a monster blast at Beirut’s port last month that killed more than 190 people, ravaged large parts of the capital and reignited public anger against the political class.