Lebanon president rejects global probe into port blast

Agence France-Presse . Beirut | Updated at 12:39am on August 09, 2020

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A Lebanese demonstrator speaks with a member of the security forces, who attacked a demonstrator, during clashes in downtown Beirut on Saturday following a demonstration against a political leadership they blame for a monster explosion that killed more than 150 people and disfigured the capital Beirut. — AFP photo

Lebanon’s president has rejected any international probe into the catastrophic Beirut port blast, saying a missile or negligence could have been responsible as rescuers desperately combed the rubble for survivors.

The entrenched ruling class has come under fire once again since Tuesday’s explosion, which killed at least 154 people and devastated swathes of the capital.

The revelation that a huge shipment of hazardous ammonium nitrate had languished for years in a warehouse in the heart of the capital served as shocking proof to many Lebanese of the rot at the core of their political system.

Even Lebanese president Michel Aoun admitted Friday that the ‘paralysed’ system needed to be ‘reconsidered’.

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’.

‘There are two possible scenarios for what happened: it was either negligence or foreign interference through a missile or bomb,’ he said, the first time a top Lebanese official raised the possibility that the port had been attacked.

Meanwhile, several thousand protesters gathered in central Beirut on Saturday to vent their anger at a political elite they blame for a deadly explosion that turned the city into a disaster zone.

The large crowd of demonstrators, some of them brandishing nooses, called for revenge as a large deployment of security forces tried to contain some groups seeking to advance towards parliament, AFP correspondents reported.

Police used tear gas against groups of demonstrators hurling rocks and sticks on the fringes of the main gathering, which was relatively peaceful despite high tensions since the blast on Tuesday.

Among the main hashtags used on social media to rally protesters was #HangThem, and demonstrators had set up mock gallows on the main square on Friday.

The health ministry said at least 158 people had died as a result of Tuesday’s explosion, an estimated 6,000 were wounded and at least 21 were missing.

What ignited the massive shipment of the chemical remains unclear — officials have said work had recently begun on repairs to the warehouse, while others suspected fireworks stored either in the same place or nearby.

Near the site of the explosion, by the carcass of the port’s giant grain silos, rescue teams from France, Russia, Germany, Italy and other countries coordinated their search efforts.

The World Food Programme has promised food for affected families and wheat imports to replace lost stocks from the silos, and US president Donald Trump said he would join other leaders in a conference call Sunday to discuss coordinating international aid.

Four bodies were uncovered near the port’s control room Friday, where a significant number of people were expected to have been working at the time of the blast.

No one has been found alive.

The wife of Dutch ambassador to Lebanon Jan Waltmans has died of wounds sustained in the Beirut bomb explosion, the Netherlands’ foreign ministry said Saturday.

‘It is with dismay and great sadness that we report the death of our colleague Hedwig Waltmans-Molier. She succumbed to injuries sustained in the massive explosion in Beirut,’ a ministry statement said.

Waltmans-Molier was hit by debris from the explosion shortly after returning back to Lebanon from holiday with her husband of 38 years.

More than 40 Syrians were among those killed in the massive blast that devastated the Lebanese capital this week, the Syrian embassy said Saturday.

The embassy did not specify if the Syrian fatalities were included in the 154 death toll announced by Lebanese authorities.

At the port, reduced to an enormous scrapyard, excavators removed mangled shipping containers to clear a path for rescuers.

Civil defence teams anxiously watched a sniffer dog pace around a gap under a fallen crane.

Beirut has received a stream of international assistance since the blast.

On Friday, relief flights from Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates landed in Lebanon, following others from France, Kuwait, Qatar and Russia.

International police agency Interpol has said it will send a team of experts who are specialised in identifying victims.

The World Health Organisation, meanwhile, called for $15 million to cover immediate health needs.

Lebanon’s hospitals, already strained by rising coronavirus cases and a severe economic crisis, were heavily damaged by the blast and overwhelmed by casualties.

The United Nations said up to 100,000 children are among the 300,000 people made homeless, including many who have been separated from their families.