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Beirut blast inquiry focuses on warehoused fertilizer

by Compiled by Democrat-Gazette staff from wire reports | August 6, 2020 at 7:15 a.m.
A drone-taken photo Wednesday shows some of the damage from explosions that rocked the seaport of Beirut on Tuesday. “Beirut as we know it is gone, and people won’t be able to rebuild their lives,” a resident said as she swept up shattered glass. More photos at arkansasonline.com/86beirut/. (AP/Hussein Malla)

BEIRUT -- Investigators looking into the deadly blast Tuesday that ripped across Beirut focused Wednesday on possible negligence in the storage of tons of a highly explosive fertilizer in a waterfront warehouse, and the government ordered the house arrest of several port officials.

The U.S. Embassy in Beirut said at least one American citizen was killed, and several more were injured in Tuesday's explosion.

"We are working closely with local authorities to determine if any additional U.S. citizens were affected," the embassy said in a statement Wednesday. The embassy said all of its employees are safe and accounted for.

International aid flights began to arrive as Lebanon's leaders struggled to deal with the widespread damage and aftermath of the blast, which the Health Ministry said killed 135 people and injured about 5,000 others.

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Losses from the blast are estimated to be between $10 billion to $15 billion, Beirut Gov. Marwan Abboud told Saudi-owned TV station Al-Hadath, adding that nearly 300,000 people are now homeless.

Public anger mounted against the ruling elite that is being blamed for the mismanagement and carelessness that led to the disaster. The Port of Beirut and customs office is notorious for being one of the most corrupt and lucrative institutions in Lebanon where various factions and politicians, including Hezbollah, hold sway.

The investigation is focusing on how 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate, an explosive chemical used in fertilizers, came to be stored at the facility for six years, and why nothing was done about it.

Hospitals were overwhelmed by the injured. One hospital that was damaged in the blast had to evacuate all of its patients to a nearby field for treatment. The Lebanese Red Cross said any additional bodies found in the rubble must be taken directly to Beirut's morgues because hospitals are overwhelmed.

It was the worst single explosion ever in Lebanon, a country whose history is filled with destruction -- from a 1975-90 civil war, conflicts with Israel and periodic terrorist attacks.

Lebanon already was on the brink of collapse amid an economic crisis and the coronavirus pandemic. Many people have lost their jobs and seen their savings evaporate because of a currency crisis. Food security is a worry, since the country imports nearly all of its vital goods, and its main port is now devastated.

WARNING LETTER

Fueling speculation that negligence was to blame for the blast, an official letter circulating online showed that the head of the customs department had warned repeatedly over the years that the stockpile of ammonium nitrate at the port was a danger and had asked judicial officials for a ruling on a way to remove it.

Ammonium nitrate is a component of fertilizer that is potentially explosive. The 2,750-ton cargo had been stored at the port since it was confiscated from a ship in 2013, and on Tuesday it is believed to have detonated after a fire broke out nearby.

The 2017 letter from the customs chief to a judge could not be immediately confirmed, but state prosecutor Ghassan Oueidat ordered security agencies to start an immediate investigation into all letters related to the materials stored at the port, as well as lists of those in charge of maintenance, storage and protection of the warehouse.

In the letter, the customs chief warned of the "dangers if the materials remain where they are, affecting the safety of [port] employees" and asked the judge for guidance. He said five similar letters were sent in 2014, 2015 and 2016. The letter proposes that the material be exported or sold to a Lebanese explosives company. It is not known if there was a response.

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Badri Daher, the head of the customs department, confirmed to the local LBC TV channel that there were five or six such letters to the judiciary. He said his predecessor also pleaded with the judiciary to issue orders to export the explosive materials "because of how dangerous they are" to the port and staff there.

Daher said it was his duty to "alert" authorities of the dangers but that is the most he could do. "I am not a technical expert."

President Michael Aoun vowed before a Cabinet meeting that the investigation would be transparent and that those responsible will be punished.

HOUSE ARREST

After the meeting, the Cabinet ordered an unspecified number of Beirut port officials put under house arrest pending the investigation.

The government also said public schools and some hotels will be opened for the homeless and promised unspecified compensation for the victims.

There were signs that public anger went beyond port officials to Lebanon's long-entrenched ruling class. Political factions have divided control of public institutions, including the port, using them to benefit their supporters, with little actual development. That has translated into crumbling infrastructure, power failures and poor services.

"May the Virgin Mary destroy them and their families," Joseph Qiyameh, a 79-year-old grocery store owner, said of the leadership. The blast damaged his store, his wife was hospitalized with injuries she suffered at home next door and his arm was hurt. He doesn't have the money to fix his business, with his savings locked up in banks by controls imposed during the financial crisis.

In the central Martyrs Square, protesters gathered shortly after midday, some of them in tears. On social media, there were calls for larger demonstrations Wednesday evening.

The Hospital of the Sisters of Rosaries was knocked out of service by the blast, with one of the nuns killed and three others severely injured.

"In a moment, there was no longer a hospital. It is all gone," said one of the nuns, who suffered a leg injury.

Residents confronted a scene of utter devastation Wednesday, with smoke still rising from the port. The blast created a crater 200 yards across that filled with seawater.

Much of downtown was littered with damaged cars and debris.

There are bodies in the rubble and in the waters of the port. Families put out frantic calls for missing loved ones across social media.

Drone footage shot by The Associated Press showed that the blast tore open a silo structure, dumping its contents into the debris. Estimates suggested about 85% of the country's grain was stored there.

Economy and Trade Minister Raoul Nehme said all of the wheat was contaminated and unusable. But he insisted Lebanon had enough for its immediate needs and would import more, according to the state news agency.

Health officials warned that the explosion left a toxic cloud of nitrous oxide hanging over the city and told residents to wear masks and stay indoors.

The U.S. Embassy issued a similar warning in a message to U.S. citizens. "There are reports of toxic gases released in the explosion so all in the area should stay indoors and wear masks if available," the message said.

GLOBAL RESPONSE

As the tiny nation reeled, Prime Minister Hassan Diab appealed for global help to staunch the suffering.

Two planeloads of French rescue workers and aid headed to Beirut, and French President Emmanuel Macron was to arrive today to offer support for the former protectorate. The countries retain close political and economic ties.

Several planes of medical equipment and supplies from Greece, Kuwait, Qatar and elsewhere arrived at Beirut's international airport. Turkey sent search-and-rescue teams, humanitarian aid, medical equipment and a field hospital, its Foreign Ministry said.

The European Union planned to send firefighters with vehicles, dogs and equipment designed to find people trapped in debris. The EU said it was activating its civil protection system to round up emergency workers and equipment from across the 27-nation bloc.

Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi offered the Lebanese government medical and humanitarian aid, as well as immediate emergency assistance, via international intermediaries because Israel and Lebanon are in a state of war and have no official contact.

An Israeli official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief reporters, said Israel had no role in the Beirut explosions.

In a statement offering condolences to families of the dead and injured, Hezbollah did not apportion blame. It called the incident a "huge national tragedy" and urged Lebanese to unite to overcome the ordeal.

President Donald Trump on Wednesday continued to suggest that the explosion might not have been an accident, as Lebanese officials have initially assessed.

"Whatever happened, it's terrible, but they don't really know what it is," Trump insisted. "Nobody knows yet."

On Tuesday, Trump called the explosion a "terrible attack" and said American generals told him it was likely caused by a bomb. "They seem to think it was an attack," Trump said. "It was a bomb of some kind, yes."

ESPER: 'ACCIDENT'

Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Wednesday that most people believe the explosion "was an accident, as reported."

But later in the day, Trump insisted nobody knows for sure.

"How can you say accident if somebody left some terrible explosive-type devices and things around perhaps -- perhaps it was that. Perhaps it was an attack," Trump told reporters during a White House briefing. "I don't think anybody can say right now. We're looking into it very strongly right now.

"Some people think it was an attack and some people think it wasn't. In any event, it was a terrible event and a lot of people were killed and a tremendous number of people were badly wounded, injured. And we're standing with that country. "

"But whether it was a bomb intentionally set off -- it ended up being a bomb," he said. "But no, I've heard it both ways. It could have been an accident, and it could have also been something that was very offensive."

White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows defended the president, saying Trump told reporters Tuesday only what military officials had told him. "The president shared with the American people what he was briefed on, with 100% certainty I can tell you that," Meadows told CNN.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke Wednesday with Lebanon's Diab to convey U.S. condolences to the Lebanese people, according to State Department deputy spokesperson Cale Brown.

The U.S. was preparing to provide humanitarian aid and medical or other supplies to the Lebanese people, Esper said online during this year's Aspen Security Forum.

Information for this article was contributed by Bassem Mroue, Zeina Karam, Sarah El Deeb, Hassan Ammar, Jon Gambrell, Joseph Krauss, Lolita C. Baldor and Deb Riechmann of The Associated Press; and by Liz Sly, Sarah Dadouch and Louisa Loveluck of The Washington Post.

Satellite images show the port of Beirut and surrounding area on May 31 (top) and on Wednesday after tons of ammonium nitrate detonated, killing at least 135 people, injuring thousands and leaving a scene of utter devastation.
(AP/Planet Labs Inc.)
Satellite images show the port of Beirut and surrounding area on May 31 (top) and on Wednesday after tons of ammonium nitrate detonated, killing at least 135 people, injuring thousands and leaving a scene of utter devastation. (AP/Planet Labs Inc.)
Buildings such as this one photographed Wednesday sustained heavy damage in Tuesday’s blasts. Witnesses saw many people injured by flying glass and debris.
(AP/Hassan Ammar)
Buildings such as this one photographed Wednesday sustained heavy damage in Tuesday’s blasts. Witnesses saw many people injured by flying glass and debris. (AP/Hassan Ammar)
A woman looks at the damage to a restaurant Wednesday in Beirut.
(AP/Hussein Malla)
A woman looks at the damage to a restaurant Wednesday in Beirut. (AP/Hussein Malla)
A drone picture shows the scene of an explosion at the seaport of Beirut, Lebanon, Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2020. A massive explosion rocked Beirut on Tuesday, flattening much of the city's port, damaging buildings across the capital and sending a giant mushroom cloud into the sky. More than 70 people were killed and 3,000 injured, with bodies buried in the rubble, officials said. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)
A drone picture shows the scene of an explosion at the seaport of Beirut, Lebanon, Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2020. A massive explosion rocked Beirut on Tuesday, flattening much of the city's port, damaging buildings across the capital and sending a giant mushroom cloud into the sky. More than 70 people were killed and 3,000 injured, with bodies buried in the rubble, officials said. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)
A survivor is taken out of the rubble after a massive explosion in Beirut, Lebanon, Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2020. The explosion flattened much of a port and damaged buildings across Beirut, sending a giant mushroom cloud into the sky. In addition to those who died, more than 3,000 other people were injured, with bodies buried in the rubble, officials said.(AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)
A survivor is taken out of the rubble after a massive explosion in Beirut, Lebanon, Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2020. The explosion flattened much of a port and damaged buildings across Beirut, sending a giant mushroom cloud into the sky. In addition to those who died, more than 3,000 other people were injured, with bodies buried in the rubble, officials said.(AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)
A survivor is taken out of the rubble after a massive explosion in Beirut, Lebanon, Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2020. The explosion on Tuesday flattened much of a port and damaged buildings across Beirut, sending a giant mushroom cloud into the sky. In addition to those who died, more than 3,000 other people were injured, with bodies buried in the rubble, officials said.(AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)
A survivor is taken out of the rubble after a massive explosion in Beirut, Lebanon, Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2020. The explosion on Tuesday flattened much of a port and damaged buildings across Beirut, sending a giant mushroom cloud into the sky. In addition to those who died, more than 3,000 other people were injured, with bodies buried in the rubble, officials said.(AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)
A couple drives past destruction after a massive explosion in Beirut, Lebanon, Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2020. The explosion flattened much of a port and damaged buildings across Beirut, sending a giant mushroom cloud into the sky. In addition to those who died, more than 3,000 other people were injured, with bodies buried in the rubble, officials said.(AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)
A couple drives past destruction after a massive explosion in Beirut, Lebanon, Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2020. The explosion flattened much of a port and damaged buildings across Beirut, sending a giant mushroom cloud into the sky. In addition to those who died, more than 3,000 other people were injured, with bodies buried in the rubble, officials said.(AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)
Destruction is seen after a massive explosion in Beirut, Lebanon, Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2020. The explosion on Tuesday flattened much of a port and damaged buildings across Beirut, sending a giant mushroom cloud into the sky. In addition to those who died, more than 3,000 other people were injured, with bodies buried in the rubble, officials said. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)
Destruction is seen after a massive explosion in Beirut, Lebanon, Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2020. The explosion on Tuesday flattened much of a port and damaged buildings across Beirut, sending a giant mushroom cloud into the sky. In addition to those who died, more than 3,000 other people were injured, with bodies buried in the rubble, officials said. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)
This photo shows a general view of the scene of an explosion that hit the seaport of Beirut, Lebanon, Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2020. The massive explosion rocked Beirut on Tuesday, flattening much of the city's port, damaging buildings across the capital and sending a giant mushroom cloud into the sky. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)
This photo shows a general view of the scene of an explosion that hit the seaport of Beirut, Lebanon, Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2020. The massive explosion rocked Beirut on Tuesday, flattening much of the city's port, damaging buildings across the capital and sending a giant mushroom cloud into the sky. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)
This photo shows a general view of the scene of an explosion that hit the seaport of Beirut, Lebanon, Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2020. The massive explosion rocked Beirut on Tuesday, flattening much of the city's port, damaging buildings across the capital and sending a giant mushroom cloud into the sky. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)
This photo shows a general view of the scene of an explosion that hit the seaport of Beirut, Lebanon, Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2020. The massive explosion rocked Beirut on Tuesday, flattening much of the city's port, damaging buildings across the capital and sending a giant mushroom cloud into the sky. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)
Lebanese soldiers search for survivors after a massive explosion in Beirut, Lebanon, Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2020. The explosion flattened much of a port and damaged buildings across Beirut, sending a giant mushroom cloud into the sky. In addition to those who died, more than 3,000 other people were injured, with bodies buried in the rubble, officials said.(AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)
Lebanese soldiers search for survivors after a massive explosion in Beirut, Lebanon, Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2020. The explosion flattened much of a port and damaged buildings across Beirut, sending a giant mushroom cloud into the sky. In addition to those who died, more than 3,000 other people were injured, with bodies buried in the rubble, officials said.(AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)
This combination of satellite images provided by Maxar Technologies shows the port of Beirut and the surrounding area in Lebanon, top, on June 9, 2020, and the same area on Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2020, the day after a massive explosion that left entire city blocks blanketed with glass and rubble. (©2020 Maxar Technologies via AP)
This combination of satellite images provided by Maxar Technologies shows the port of Beirut and the surrounding area in Lebanon, top, on June 9, 2020, and the same area on Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2020, the day after a massive explosion that left entire city blocks blanketed with glass and rubble. (©2020 Maxar Technologies via AP)
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