Lebanon Arrests Beirut Port Officials Overseeing Storage Following Blast

EDITORS NOTE: Graphic content / A helicopter puts out a fire at the scene of an explosion at the port of Lebanon's capital Beirut on August 4, 2020. (Photo by STR / AFP) (Photo by STR/AFP via Getty Images)
STR/AFP via Getty Images

Lebanon’s executive cabinet agreed to place under house arrest every Beirut port official responsible for storing confiscated items Wednesday in response to a massive blast in the port that has killed at least 100 and left thousands homeless.

A stockpile of thousands of tons of ammonium nitrate, a highly flammable substance, caused the explosion, according to Prime Minister Hassan Diab. Diab said authorities confiscated the material in 2013 and left it unsecured in the port, a highly trafficked area, for six years.

Lebanese authorities have vowed to bring those responsible for the explosion and the thousands of injured to justice. They have not indicated that the explosion was a deliberate act of terrorism or that anything intentional triggered it. Some reports have suggested that construction work near the site may have detonated the nitrate.

The officials affected by the house arrest order, according to Lebanon’s Daily Star newspaper, are all those “who oversaw storage and guarding since 2014.” Multiple international media outlets corroborated the move but cited anonymous sources, in addition to Daily Star.

The official Twitter account of the president of Lebanon, Michel Aoun, confirmed the arrests Wednesday.

“In light of the declared state of emergency, the National Defense Law, and other laws, the Supreme Military Authority is required to impose house arrest on anyone who manages the affairs of storing ammonium nitrate … from June 2014 until the date of the explosion,” Aoun wrote.

Aoun also announced efforts to offer “immediate compensation” to the affected, which include hundreds of thousands of people. The explosion devastated multiple neighborhoods of the national capital.

“What happened today will not fly by without accountability. All those responsible for this catastrophe will pay the price,” Diab said in a national address on Tuesday. “This is a promise I make to martyrs and injured. This is a national commitment.”

“Facts about this dangerous warehouse that has been there since 2014, i.e. for 6 years now, will be announced. I will not preempt the investigations. At the moment, we are focusing on handling the disaster, pulling the martyrs out, and treating the wounded,” he said, offering the most detailed information on the explosion since it occurred.”

The explosion took place in the evening hours of Tuesday, decimating much of the Beirut port and key facilities like grain storage warehouses. Witnesses said they felt the power of the explosion nearly 200 miles away. Lebanon’s Red Cross said on Wednesday that it had documented at least 100 deaths and 4,000 injuries, but that many were likely trapped in rubble, hurt beyond recognition closer to the blast, or injured but unable to reach medical aid.

Al Jazeera confirmed that, following the incident, at least three Beirut hospitals were completely destroyed and two others damaged. Early reports on Tuesday indicated that some hospitals were forced to turn away bloodied civilians because the structural integrity of the building had been compromised, giving them nowhere to treat patients.

Witnesses have told news agencies they were taken completely by surprise, even those blocks away from the epicenter of the explosion, and witnessed windows suddenly exploding and felt what appeared to be an earthquake.

“I have friends who live 10-15 minutes away who showed me their entire house was blown out. I am wondering how people are going to sleep tonight without windows,” journalist Habib Battah told Al Jazeera. “This country is not prepared for disasters … There are barely enough police to control highways which are extremely dangerous. In no place you will find the government trying to put regulations and safety for its citizens — so there are no highways patrols, no fire inspections of buildings.”

“The blast blew me off metres away. I was in a daze and was all covered in blood. It brought back the vision of another explosion I witnessed against the U.S. embassy in 1983,” Huda Baroudi, a Beirut designer and witness to the blast, told Reuters.

Lebanese authorities have not at press time identified a cause for the ammonium nitrate exploding. Health Minister Hassan Hamad initially claimed that the ammonium nitrate was a fireworks cache, though later public security officials clarified that the explosives detonated were confiscated at the port.

Journalists have since traced back the prime minister’s revelation that the about 2,700 tons of ammonium nitrate came from a confiscated ship in 2013 to the interception of the MV Rhosus, a ship sailing under the flag of Moldova but owned by Russian businessman Igor Grechushkin. Radio Free Europe reached out to Boris Prokoshev, the ship’s former captain, who confirmed that the ship was indeed carrying ammonium nitrate at the time of its impounding.

No explanation has surfaced for why, once confiscated, the nitrates were not moved to a location outside of a densely populated civilian area.

Follow Frances Martel on Facebook and Twitter.

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