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Beirut explosion: Politician blames Hezbollah and government

The Beirut disaster could have been caused by a ‘rocket or bomb’, Lebanon’s president said today after protests erupted at the elite corruption and incompetence which is widely blamed for the disaster. 

President Michel Aoun said that ‘the cause has not been determined yet’ three days after the disaster which has killed at least 154 people and devastated large swathes of the city. 

While authorities are investigating claims of negligence and have arrested 16 port officials, the president said there was also a ‘possibility of external interference through a rocket or bomb or other act’. 

Aoun also said that Lebanon’s ‘paralysed’ political system should be reconsidered in the nod to the protests which blame Tuesday’s explosion on years of mismanagement and corruption. 

He pledged ‘swift justice’ but rejected widespread calls for an international probe, telling a reporter he saw it as an attempt to ‘dilute the truth.’ 

Early reports said fireworks stored near the warehouse or welders being used to repair a broken gate might to be blame, while the United States has not ruled out the possibility of an attack. 

The son of an assassinated former Lebanese PM has pointed the finger at terrorist group Hezbollah, saying that nothing goes through the port without them knowing. 

Separately, claims emerged today that the cargo of ammonium nitrate which exploded in Warehouse 12 might have been diverted to Beirut on purpose despite officially being destined for Mozambique.  

Lebanese security forces faced off with dozens of anti-government demonstrators last night, while tear gas was fired to disperse scuffles that broke out in ravaged streets in central Beirut leading to parliament, the wreckage from Tuesday’s explosion still littering the entire area. 

In addition to the 154 deaths, the blast has injured more than 5,000 people, left 300,000 others homeless and sparked panic over wheat shortages after 15,000 tonnes of grains were blasted out of the silos.  

Many Lebanese put the blame squarely on the political elite and the corruption and mismanagement that even before the disaster had pushed the country to the brink of economic collapse.  

Lebanon is already seeking $20billion in funding from the IMF and now faces billions more in disaster costs, with losses from the explosion estimated to be between $10billion and $15billion.  

A crowd had earlier mobbed visiting French President Emmanuel Macron, demanding his help in overthrowing Lebanon’s reviled leaders, with many chanting for ‘revolution’ and to ‘bring down the regime’. 

The explosion has reignited anti-government protests in Lebanon that have been ongoing since last year amid anger at entrenched incompetence and corruption. 

The feeling of resentment and anger towards the government is palpable in the words of those protesting, and the Arabic hashtag ‘Prepare the nooses’ trending on social media.

Anthony Elghossain, a Lebanese-American lawyer, said: ‘Lebanese leaders have killed a country, buried it and p****d on its grave. That’s what people are feeling right now.

‘For 30 years people have been telling themselves it can’t get much worse but look at it now … they played hot potato with a megabomb,’ he said, according to the Daily Telegraph.

Mr Macron, who was mobbed by angry Lebanese during the first visit by a foreign leader since the explosion, promised to mobilise aid to the former French protectorate. 

However, he warned there would be no blank cheque for leaders without serious reform, and at a press conference he called for an international inquiry into the explosion.  

‘If reforms are not carried out, Lebanon will continue to sink,’ Macron said after being met at the airport by Lebanese President Michel Aoun. 

‘What is also needed here is political change. This explosion should be the start of a new era.’

He also promised that French aid would be given out with transparency and ‘will not go into the hands of corruption.’ 

In one powerful moment the French leader stopped and offered a hug to a distraught woman in the crowd who was heard shouting: ‘You are sitting with warlords. They have been manipulating us for the past year.’ Macron replied: ‘I’m not here to help them. I’m here to help you’.  

Hours after Macron left Gemmayzeh, Justice Minister Marie-Claude Najm tried to visit, only to be driven out by protesters.  

Bahaa Hariri, whose father, Prime Minister Rafiq, was assassinated in 2005, said last night everyone in the city knew Hezbollah controlled Beirut’s port and airport and it was inconceivable that the authorities did not know the deadly ammonium nitrate was stored in a warehouse there.

Speaking for the first time Mr Hariri, 54, said: ‘The question we have to ask is how come for six years this combustible material was allowed to remain in the middle of this city of two million people?’

‘It is crystal clear Hezbollah are in charge of the Port and the Warehouse where the ammonium nitrate was stored.

‘Nothing goes in and out of the Port or the Airport does so with them knowing. Nothing.

‘Their decision to put it there in the middle of a city of two million people was an utter disaster. And now we have a destroyed city centre.’ 

The Special Tribunal for Lebanon, which has been investigating the assassination of Rafiq Hariri for the last 15 years, was due to announce its judgment on Friday. This has now been postponed until August 18. 

There are now thought to be 300,000 left homeless and widespread damage estimated at up to $15billion – including a 390ft cruise ship which capsized as a result of the blast.

The Orient Queen, which had capacity for up to 300 passengers, was not carrying any passengers on board at the time after summer cruising operations had been cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic.

One of the ship’s crew was killed with another still missing. Several other members of the crew remain in hospitals across the city, according to the ship’s operator Abou Merhi Cruises.

‘It’s a sad, sad day for all of us,’ said the cruise operator on social media. 

‘Abou Merhi Cruises has lost a precious soul in the tragedy that took place at the port of Beirut. Heilemariam Reta (Hailey) from Ethiopia.

‘Our prayers and thoughts are with the family of Mustafa Airout from Syria who was at the port and is still missing’. 

Hospitals have also been badly damaged by the explosion, and medical centres were overwhelmed with cases other than Covid-19 for the first time in months with some having to turn away the wounded.  

A military judge leading the investigation into Tuesday’s blast said 16 employees of Beirut’s port, where the explosion took place, had been detained. He said 18 had been questioned, including port and customs officials, according to the state news agency. 

Cypriot police say they have questioned a Russian man over alleged links to a ship and its cargo of ammonium nitrate said to have caused the devastating explosion. 

The dangerous load of ammonium nitrate is understood to have been abandoned by Russian businessman Igor Grechushkin in September 2013, according to two letters issued by the director general of Lebanese Customs.

A ship carrying the load was detained en route from Batumi, in the ex-Soviet republic Georgia, to Mozambique, and never recovered. 

For reasons that are unclear, dockworkers unloaded the chemical, which can be used to make fertilisers and explosives, and put it into storage at the port where it remained for six years.   

The chemical was being kept in Warehouse 12 next to a series of other structures where Customs kept commercial cargo and personal belongings of people who had shipped them to Lebanon.

It has been reported that in order to retrieve any belongings from the port bundles of money were needed to pay off different factions among the port’s bureaucracy.  

Lebanon has placed every official responsible for the security of Beirut’s port for the last six years under house arrest as it investigates the explosion. 

But the head of the Beirut port, Hassan Koraytem, told pro-government broadcaster OTV that the Customs department, as well as state security, had wanted the material to be exported or removed, but that ‘nothing happened’. 

The country’s political leaders vowed those responsible for the tragedy would ‘pay the price’, but customs officials pointed the finger of blame back at them – saying they were repeatedly warned of the danger but failed to act.  

Raghida Dergham of the Beirut Institute yesterday said: ‘Storing Ammonium Nitrate in a civilian port is a crime against humanity that must not go unpunished. 

‘Condemnations are not enough. I’m safe but devastated. I lost friends. I lost my apartment. Had I been home, I would have lost my life.’  

An official source familiar with preliminary investigations blamed the incident on negligence. Lebanese citizens directed anger at politicians who have overseen decades of state corruption and bad governance that plunged the nation into financial crisis.   

Director General of Lebanese Customs Badri Daher said the country’s judiciary was told six times about the hazardous chemicals stored in a warehouse in the Lebanese capital. 

Customs officials are understood to have asked authorities to move the dangerous substance from Hangar 12 due to the danger they believe it posed to the city and given to the army or sold to an explosives company.

‘We requested that it be re-exported but that did not happen. We leave it to the experts and those concerned to determine why,’ Daher said. 

Another source close to a port employee said a team that inspected the ammonium nitrate six months ago warned that if it was not moved it would ‘blow up all of Beirut’.   

Prime Minister Hassan Diab vowed those responsible will ‘pay the price’ as he declared a two-week state of emergency to deal with the crisis, urging all world leaders and ‘friends of Lebanon’ to donate aid to the country, adding: ‘We are witnessing a real catastrophe.’ 

Documents published online suggested it could be given to the army or sold to an explosives company, but did not receive any replies, leaving the explosive cargo languishing in the now destroyed port area of the capital.

Ammonium nitrate is a chemical used in fertiliser bombs and is widely used by the construction industry but also by insurgent groups such as the Taliban and the IRA for improvised explosives. 

Authorities have cordoned off the port itself, where the blast left a crater 200 yards across and shredded a large grain silo, emptying its contents into the rubble. Estimates suggested about 85 per cent of the country’s grain was stored there.

Lebanon is highly dependent on imports, and the destruction of the port, along with the worsening cash crisis, have raised fears of shortages. 

Other countries, including Greece, Qatar, Kuwait, Turkey and the European Union, have dispatched medical supplies, humanitarian aid and search-and-rescue teams. 

It comes after a tragic photo emerged showing the final moments of firefighters sent to tackle a blaze at Warehouse 12 in Beirut’s port before the chemicals stored inside exploded with the force of a small nuke.

The image – verified by MailOnline – shows firefighters trying to pry the lock off a door beneath a sign that reads ‘entrance 12’, along with signs warning of hazardous chemicals inside. 

The person who took the photo has been confirmed dead with the photo found on his phone, while Beirut’s governor has said 10 firefighters are missing after the blast, sparked when 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate stored in the warehouse caught fire. 

The image was being widely-circulated on Arab-language twitter accounts on Wednesday as people paid tribute to the firefighters, who are assumed to have perished. 

Jo Noon, Methal Hawwa and Najib Hati were part of a 10-person rapid response team. Nine of them are still missing while one female colleague, 25-year-old Sahar Faris, has been confirmed dead. 

Ms Faris, who has since been dubbed ‘the bride of Beirut’ on social media, was engaged to be married in June next year. Yesterday, her fiancé, Gilbert Karaan, posted a tribute saying, ‘you broke my back, you broke my heart’.

The three firemen were photographed in an iconic picture putting their lives on the line to prevent the catastrophe. One of them, Najib Hati, did not even have time to put on his uniform.

They had been dispatched with another colleague, thought to be Ms Faris, from the fire station in La Quarantaine, northeastern Beirut, in an emergency response vehicle and were first on the scene, fire chiefs said.

The six other firefighters followed in a fire engine. ‘As the fire service, we have the authority to open any door without the approval of any ministry or military,’ a fire service official, who asked not to be named, said.

‘When the smoke first started gathering, we sent a unit of 10 people. Six were in the fire engine and four in the emergency response car. The three men in the famous photograph were first on the scene trying to unlock the door to Warehouse 12.

‘Following them were the colleagues in the other vehicles. The blast hit all of them. Nine are still missing and one, Sahar Faris, has been found and declared dead. Her family mourned here yesterday. Her fiancé is devastated.’ 

Details from the image – such as the heavy grey sliding doors and white sign with Arabic writing – were also visible in a video taken outside the flaming warehouses as a fire, thought to have been sparked by a welder, took hold.

The video shows firefighters in similar uniforms to those seen in the photo as they assess the scene, seemingly unaware of the danger.

More footage taken from the roof of a building across the street shows identical warehouse buildings being consumed by smoke and flames, along with similar-looking signs on the warehouse doors.

That footage can be verified as genuine because it features a large metal support strut, that can be seen on the roof of a building opposite the warehouse in Google Satellite images. 

Meanwhile a photo taken of the warehouse some time ago shows the same grey sliding doors, high square windows and white sign, though without an writing on it. That photo also purports to show sacks filled with ammonium nitrate that caused the explosion. 

The second video also features other corroborating details seen in multiple pieces of footage from around Beirut, such as small explosions from what appear to be fireworks moments before the main blast takes place.

That video also features the moment the blast happens, obliterating the warehouse, badly damaging grain silos opposite, and sending out a shockwave that flattened nearby buildings and blew out windows across the city.

Anger is mounting against Lebanon’s government following the massive blast in Beirut which has killed at least 137 people and wounded more than 5,000 as activists vowed to take to the streets as soon as the clean-up is over.

Prime Minister Hassan Diab has vowed that those responsible for the explosion – triggered when 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate being stored at the port caught fire – would ‘pay the price’, but the blame is increasingly being turned against the political class.

Lina Daoud, 45, a resident of the Mar Mikhail which was all-but destroyed in the explosion, described politicians as ‘enemies of the state’, saying: ‘They killed our dreams, our future. Lebanon was a heaven, they have made it hell.’

Politicians were viewed as corrupt and incompetent even before the explosion, with tens of thousands taking to the streets in demonstrations that started in October last year – and now threaten to return with fresh intensity.

But marches will have to wait, at least for now, since many activists are busy cleaning up their city, rehousing the homeless and repairing damaged buildings amid a near-total absence of state support.

‘What state?’ scoffed 42-year-old Melissa Fadlallah, a volunteer cleaning up the hard-hit Mar Mikhail district of the Lebanese capital.

The explosion, which hit just a few hundred metres (yards) away at Beirut’s port, blew all the windows and doors off Mar Mikhail’s pubs, restaurants and apartment homes on Tuesday.

By Wednesday, a spontaneous cleanup operation was underway there, a glimmer of youthful solidarity and hope after a devastating night.

Wearing plastic gloves and a mask, Fadlallah tossed a shard of glass as long as her arm at the door of the state electricity company’s administrative building that looms over the district.

‘For me, this state is a dump – and on behalf of yesterday’s victims, the dump that killed them is going to stay a dump,’ she told AFP.

The blast killed more than 110 people, wounded thousands and compounded public anger that erupted in protests last year against a government seen as corrupt and inefficient.

‘We’re trying to fix this country. We’ve been trying to fix it for nine months but now we’re going to do it our way,’ said Fadlallah.

‘If we had a real state, it would have been in the street since last night cleaning and working. Where are they?’

A few civil defence workers could be seen examining building structures but they were vastly outnumbered by young volunteers flooding the streets to help.

In small groups, they energetically swept up glass beneath blown-out buildings, dragging them into plastic bags.

Others clambered up debris-strewn stairwells to offer their homes to residents who had spent the previous night in the open air.

‘We’re sending people into the damaged homes of the elderly and handicapped to help them find a home for tonight,’ said Husam Abu Nasr, a 30-year-old volunteer.

White shirt sleeves rolled up, Emmanuel Macron waded through cheering crowds in the devastated streets of Beirut earlier today where disaster survivors pleaded with him to help get rid of their reviled ruling elite.

Doing what no senior Lebanese leader had done since the deadly explosion at Beirut port two days earlier, the French president allowed himself to be thronged by residents of one of the capital’s worst-hit neighbourhoods.

Dozens of people chanting ‘revolution’ and pleading with him for help pressed against his phalanx of bodyguards as he walked through the Gemmayzeh area for around 45 minutes.

Long simmering anger against Lebanon’s leaders has flared since the blast, which appears to have been caused by negligence and is widely seen as the most tragic manifestation yet of the corruption and incompetence of the ruling class.

Some welcomed Macron like a saviour, while only a few heckled him, arguing that his mere presence in Lebanon would only serve to legitimise a political system they want to kick out wholesale.

‘Help us, you are our only hope,’ one well-wisher shouted as Macron stopped to meet residents, while neighbours applauded from flats with broken windows and crumbling balconies.

A woman wearing a face mask and heavy duty gloves cut through the crowd to catch the attention of the French head of state before clenching his hands firmly to make an impassioned plea for help.

Under the nervous gaze of his suited bodyguards, Macron hugged her in a prolonged embrace that triggered wild cheers from the crowd. 

Throughout the dramatic walkabout, Macron appeared to savour the moment. His moment.

The scene was reminiscent of Jacques Chirac’s legendary 1996 walk through the Old City of Jerusalem, a moment that came to define his style as a president and contributed greatly to his popularity.

‘My home in Gemmayzeh has vanished and the first person to pay me a visit is a foreign president,’ well-known actor Ziad Itani wrote on social media, telling Lebanese leaders: ‘Shame on you.’

‘It seems this is more than a visit. What’s happening on the streets of Gemmayzeh is historical.’

Clamouring around Macron, people chanted slogans made popular during the country’s October popular uprising, launching insults at the political leaders he was to meet hours later.

Macron, when pressed by residents – some bearing the bandaged wounds of the cataclysmic explosion that disfigured their neighbourhood – vowed to be tough and push for reforms.

‘I understand your anger. I am not here to endorse … the regime,’ Macron assured the crowd. ‘It is my duty to help you as a people, to bring you medicine and food.’

One woman implored Macron to keep French financial assistance out of the reach of Lebanese officials, accused by many Lebanese of rampant graft and greed.

‘I guarantee you that this aid will not fall into corrupt hands,’ Macron said.

He promised to pitch a ‘new political deal’ to the country’s leaders, and to press them to deliver sweeping change.

‘I am going to talk to them … I will hold them accountable,’ Macron said before getting into a black limousine headed for the presidential palace.

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