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Lebanon crisis

Probe into deadly Beirut port blast yields no results one year later

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The probe into the Beirut port explosion has yet to yield any results as the one-year anniversary of the deadly incident nears.

Numerous investigations have been launched in an effort to find out who is accountable for the country’s most tragic peacetime disaster, which killed 214 people in left 300,000 homeless.

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However, no top officials have been questioned over the disaster so far, further angering many crisis-weary Lebanese.

In one of history’s largest non-nuclear explosions, a warehouse that had been storing 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate in the port since 2014 caught fire, leading to the blast.

Although France has already launched its own inquiry into the matter, focusing on the death of French citizens, political leaders have repeatedly refused international investigations.

Arnaud Tranchant, left, chief Navy officer for the French helicopter carrier Tonnerre, talks to French President Emmanuel Macron off the port of Beirut on Sept.1, 2020. (AP)
Arnaud Tranchant, left, chief Navy officer for the French helicopter carrier Tonnerre, talks to French President Emmanuel Macron off the port of Beirut on Sept.1, 2020. (AP)

Meanwhile, a domestic investigation is still underway and many are worried that the disaster will go unpunished.

Parliament ready to lift immunity

Lebanon’s influential parliament speaker Nabih Berri said on Thursday the legislature was ready to lift the immunity of its members in order allow for questioning over last year’s port blast in the capital Beirut.

“The priority of parliament was and will continue to be complete cooperation with the judiciary,” Berri said in a statement after a meeting with the Future Movement, parliament’s main Sunni bloc.

Long-time politician and head of the party Saad al-Hariri had called for lawmakers’ immunity to be lifted earlier this week by suspending all constitutional and legal regulations that allow for it.

Lebanese Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri chairs a parliament meeting at the Unesco Palace in the capital Beirut, on April 21, 2020. (AFP)
Lebanese Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri chairs a parliament meeting at the Unesco Palace in the capital Beirut, on April 21, 2020. (AFP)

Berri did not say when immunity would be lifted or how.

A probe into the port blast led by judge Tarek Bitar has been hindered over the past month as requests sent parliament and the government to lift immunity and enable questioning of several top officials were either declined or stalled.

President ready to answer questions

Lebanese President Michel Aoun told the country’s public prosecutor last week that he was ready to give a statement about the blast if needed.

A handout picture provided by the Lebanese photo agency Dalati and Nohra on November 21, 2020, shows President Michel Aoun delivering a televised address. (AFP)
A handout picture provided by the Lebanese photo agency Dalati and Nohra on November 21, 2020, shows President Michel Aoun delivering a televised address. (AFP)

“No one is above the law no matter how high up, and justice can only be achieved through the specialized judicial branches that provide guarantees,” Aoun told prosecutor Ghassan Ouidat during a meeting, according to a statement released by the president’s office.

FBI report

The amount of ammonium nitrate that exploded at Beirut port last year was one fifth of the shipment unloaded there in 2013, according to the FBI, adding to suspicions that much of the cargo had gone missing.

The FBI’s Oct 7, 2020 report, which was seen by Reuters this week, estimates around 552 tons of ammonium nitrate exploded that day, much less than the 2,754 tons that arrived on a Russian-leased cargo ship in 2013.

However, the report gave no explanation as to how the discrepancy arose, or where the rest of the shipment went.

In response to a detailed request for comment, an FBI spokesperson referred Reuters to the Lebanese authorities.

FBI investigators came to Beirut after the blast at Lebanon’s request.

Debris are seen in the port area after a blast in Beirut. (File photo: Reuters)
Debris are seen in the port area after a blast in Beirut. (File photo: Reuters)

A senior Lebanese official who was aware of the FBI report and its findings said the Lebanese authorities agreed with the Bureau on the quantity that exploded.

Many officials in Lebanon have previously said in private they believe a lot of the shipment was stolen.

The ammonium nitrate was going from Georgia to Mozambique on a Russian-leased cargo ship when the captain says he was instructed to make an unscheduled stop in Beirut and take on extra cargo.

The ship arrived in Beirut in November 2013 but never left, becoming tangled in a legal dispute over unpaid port fees and ship defects. No one ever came forward to claim the shipment.

The senior Lebanese official said there were no firm conclusions as to why the quantity that exploded was less than the original shipment. One theory was that part of it was stolen. A second theory was that only part of the shipment detonated, with the rest blown out to sea, the official said.

The FBI report said “an approximate amount reaching around 552 metric tons of ammonium nitrate exploded in warehouse 12”.

It noted the warehouse was large enough to house the 2,754 ton shipment, which was stored in one-ton bags, but added “it is not logical that all of them were present at the time of the explosion”.

- With Reuters

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