LEBANON’S president knew about the stockpile of highly-explosive chemicals being stored at Beirut’s port nearly three weeks before the horror blast which left 154 dead.
Michel Aoun revealed he learned about the stash of 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate on July 20 but claims he ordered officials to deal with the problem so the tragedy is not his fault.
The chemicals had been stored at a warehouse since 2013 after being seized from a cargo ship, but Aoun insisted he “had no authority to deal directly with the port.”
When asked whether he should have followed up on his order, he replied: “Do you know how many problems have been accumulating?”
“There are ranks that should know their duties, and they were all informed,” he added.
“When you refer a document and say ‘Do what is needed’ – isn’t that an order?”
It’s been revealed officials had raised the alarm over the powder keg of chemicals at least 10 times over the last seven years with one warning it could “blow up all of Beirut.”
Aoun came to power in 2016 but blames his predecessors for the disaster, reports Sky News.
He said: “The material had been there for seven years, since 2013. It has been there, and they said it is dangerous and I am not responsible.
“I don’t know where it was placed. I don’t even know the level of danger. I have no authority to deal directly with the port.”
Aoun’s claims comes just hours after he said Tuesday’s deadly explosion could have been caused by a “rocket or bomb.”
He said that “the cause has not been determined yet” three days after the explosion devastated the port area of the capital.
At least 154 people died in the blast and an estimated 5,000 were injured, while dozens remain missing.
Many people are feared to still be trapped under the rubble and inside their damaged homes.
And a desperate hunt has now been launched to find survivors.
UNICEF is now warning that of those 300,000 left homeless by the blast, 80,000 are children.
An investigative committee in Lebanon has been given four days to determine responsibility.
In the wake of tragedy, demonstrators in Beirut have clashed with security forces as Lebanon’s ruling parties are blamed for the industrial blast.
Many in the country say the tragedy was the result of corruption and negligence over the course of years as well as the influence of terrorist group Hezbollah in the country’s politics.
The devastation came as the country was already in the midst of an economic crisis, facing spiraling debt, deteriorating public services and unemployment at 25 percent.
Tracy Chamoun, Lebanon’s ambassador to Jordan, said the country needed a change in leadership, while MP Marwan Hamadeh said its ruling parties had “destroyed and impoverished [Lebanon] in front of the world”.
Opposition figure Bahaa Hariri, son of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri, who was assassinated in 2005, pointed the finger specifically at paramilitary group Hezbollah, whose political wing is a dominant force in Lebanese politics.
January saw the UK government add the entire Hezbollah movement to its list of terrorist organisations, where previously only its military wing had been included.
“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?” Hariri said.
“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.”
Satellite images taken before and after the explosion showed the extent of the damage done to Beirut’s main port, through which around 80 percent of the country’s grain imports pass.
Countries around the world have pledged support for the rescue effort, including the UK.
PM Boris Johnson said Britain stands ready to offer “any support we can” to Lebanon – and confirmed some caught up in the blast were Brits.
He added: “All of my thoughts and prayers are with those caught up in this terrible incident.”