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International News

Explosion in Beirut Leave More than 135 People Dead at 5,000 Injured

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Explosion in Beirut Leave More than 135 People Dead at 5,000 Injured

2020-08-05 16:58:26

By Laura Tucker, Staff writer; Image: Explosion Beirut Screenshot)

Foul play is not expected in the explosion that rocked Beirut, Lebanon, on Wednesday. Investigations are underway for the cause of the blasts that left more than 135 dead and 5,000 injured, with the numbers increasing periodically as the city begins a recovery effort. Port officials have been kept under house arrest with the possibility that negligence could be behind the blast.

The probe is examining why 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate was stored at the facility for six years. Ammonium nitrate is a highly explosive chemical that is used in fertilizers.

Aid flights from foreign countries arrived to help out in the aftermath of the tragedy. The city has already been struggling with an economic crisis with the public blaming mismanagement and corruption

Health Minister Hamad Hassan put the death total at a minimum of 135 people and about 5,000 injured. Hospitals in the city were overwhelmed, with some sustaining damage. The governor of Beirut suggested hundreds of thousands of citizens may not be able to return to their homes for two or three months.

The explosion was the worst, most destructive in the history of the city, despite all of its conflicts and terror attacks. A senior official with the U.S. Defense Department and member of the U.S. intelligence community said there weren't any indications the explosion was caused by an attack of a nation-state or proxy forces.

At this point in the investigation, the belief is that the explosion was caused by explosives that weren't properly stored. Pointing to possible negligence, a letter was shared that showed the head of customs had warned repeatedly that a huge stockpile of ammonium nitrate that was stored in the hanger was a danger and asked for a court ruling to have it removed.

It's been at the port since it was confiscated from a ship in 2013. It appears to have detonated after a fire broke out near where it was stored. A 2017 letter from the custom's chief to a judge has not been confirmed. Still, state prosecutor Ghassan Oueidat ordered security agencies to start an investigation into letters that could relate to the situation.

The customs chief warned in the 2017 letter of the "dangers if the materials remain where they are, affecting the safety of (port) employees" and asked a judge for help. He said five other letters were sent in 2014, 2015, and 2016. It was suggested the ammonium nitrate could be exported or sold to an explosives company.

President Michael Aoun said before a Cabinet meeting on Wednesday that the investigation would be transparent and the people responsible would be punished.  "There are no words to describe the catastrophe that hit Beirut last night," he said.

The Cabinet ordered Beirut port officials be put under house arrest pending the investigation. A two-week state of emergency was declared, with the military taking on full powers.

The public anger could go beyond port officials and to the ruling class. Control of the country's public institutions, including the port, has been divided up by political factions to benefit supporters. It's led to crumbling infrastructure, power outages, and poor services.

"May the Virgin Mary destroy them and their families," said 79-year-old grocery store owner Joseph Qiyameh of the political leaders. His store was damaged in the explosion. He injured his arm, and his wife was hospitalized. He doesn't have the money to fix his business, and his savings have been locked up by capital control that was imposed.

After former prime minister Saad Hariri made a public appearance after the blast, a small protest took place. There were also fistfights among Hariri's supporters and the protesters. He had resigned in October.

On Wednesday, Beirut residents faced a devastating scene with smoke still evident at the port. A 200-meter crater was created by the blast and filled with seawater. The downtown area has damaged vehicles and debris strewn about.

Already in an economic crisis, food security is a concern, with the city importing nearly all its vital goods and the port now badly damaged. Drone footage showed that the explosion ripped open a silo and dumped everything into the debris.

It's estimated that 85 percent of the country's grain was stored there. Economy and Trade Minister Raoul Nehme said all the wheat stored there was contaminated yet felt the country has enough for its immediate needs. 

Public schools and some hotels will be opened for the homeless, and victims will receive unspecified compensation. Imports and exports will be secured through other ports in the country because of the Port of Beirut being destroyed.

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