Lebanese President not ruling out missile strike as cause of Beirut blast
As Beirut’s residents seek to rebuild their lives, the country’s President says investigations into the biggest blast in the city’s history will examine whether it was caused by a bomb or other external interference.
- President Michel Aoun has not ruled out the possibility of “external interference”
- Hezbollah’s leader denies that the Iran-backed group had arms stored at the port
- Volunteers have been cleaning up the debris, searching for survivors
Rescuers sifted through rubble in a race to find anyone still alive after Tuesday’s port explosion, which killed 154 people, injured 5,000, smashed a swathe of the Mediterranean city and sent seismic shockwaves around the region.
“The cause has not been determined yet. There is a possibility of external interference through a rocket or bomb or other act,” President Michel Aoun said.
Mr Aoun, who had previously said explosive material was stored unsafely for years at the port, said the investigation would also weigh if the blast was due to negligence or an accident.
Twenty people had been detained so far, he added.
While the United States has said it did not rule out an attack, Israel, which has fought several wars with Lebanon, denied any role.
The Russian captain of a ship whose impounded cargo of fertiliser is thought to have caused the explosion has implied Lebanese officials are to blame for the disaster.
Boris Prokoshev said officials could have let the ship leave Beirut instead of pursuing its owner for unpaid port fees.
‘We lost everything’: Beirut blast victims recall tragedy
Search and rescue operations continue in Beirut after a massive explosion rocked Lebanon’s capital, plunging hundreds of thousands of shellshocked citizens into sudden homelessness.
He said the ship was travelling from Georgia to Mozambique, and only stopped in Beirut because its Russian owner had money trouble.
When the owner refused to pay port fees and a fine, the ship was impounded along with the ammonium nitrate on board.
On Friday, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, leader of Lebanon’s powerful Shiite group Hezbollah, denied what he said were “preconceived” comments both domestically and abroad that the Iran-backed group had arms stored at the port.
At Beirut’s Mohammad Al-Amin mosque, chief cleric Amin Al Kurdi told worshippers in a Friday sermon that Lebanese leaders bore responsibility.
“Who is the criminal, who is the killer behind the Beirut explosion?” he said.
“Only God can protect, not the corrupt … the army only protects the leaders.”
‘Where is the state?’
Security forces teargassed a crowd in Beirut on Thursday, as anger boiled over at the ruling elite, who have presided over an economic collapse.
The small crowd, some hurling stones, marked a return to the kind of protests that had become a feature of life as Lebanese watched their savings evaporate and currency disintegrate, while government decision-making floundered.
“There is no way we can rebuild this house. Where is the state?” said Tony Abdou, an unemployed 60-year-old.
His family home is in Gemmayze, a district a few hundred metres from the warehouses where 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate were stored for years near a densely populated area.
Some port officials have been ordered under house arrest.
Volunteers swept up debris from the streets of Beirut, which still beared scars from a 1975-1990 civil war.
“Do we actually have a government here?” said taxi driver Nassim Abiaad, 66, whose cab was crushed by wreckage as he was about to get in.
“There is no way to make money anymore.”
For many, the explosion was symptomatic of years of neglect and corruption.
“The problem is this government and all governments before it,” said Dr Mohammed Kalifa, 31, after Friday prayers.
Officials have said the blast, whose impact was recorded hundreds of kilometres away, might have caused losses amounting to $15 billion.
That is a bill Lebanon cannot pay after already defaulting on a mountain of debt — exceeding 150 per cent of economic output — and with talks stalled on a lifeline from the International Monetary Fund.
Hospitals, many heavily damaged as shockwaves ripped out windows and ceilings, have been overwhelmed.
Hunt for the missing
In the port area, rescue teams have set up arc lights to work through the night as families waited, slowly losing hope of seeing loved ones again.
Some victims were hurled into the sea because of the explosive force.
One weeping mother called a prime-time TV programme to plead with authorities to find her son, Joe. He was found hours later: dead.
Dozens are still unaccounted for.
In Beirut’s Karantina district, a Polish rescue team took a break near a once three-storey building that was completely flattened.
One woman and her two teenage daughters living in the building were killed, a neighbour said.
After the blast destroyed Lebanon’s only major grain silo, United Nations agencies helped provide emergency food aid as well as medical supplies.
Aid offers have also poured in from Arab states, Western nations, the Vatican and beyond.
But none, so far, address the bigger challenges facing a bankrupt nation.