International probe into Beirut blast rejected

Port of Beirut
An aerial view shows the port of Beirut on August 7, 2020, three days after a colossal explosion of a huge pile of ammonium nitrate that had languished for years in a port warehouse, left scores of people dead or injured and caused devastation in the Lebanese capital. AFP

BEIRUT, Aug 8, 2020 (AFP) - 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.

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.

“I am waiting to hear that you have been rescued alive, my dear,” tweeted Emilie Hasrouty, whose brother is among the missing.

“I am paralysed with fear.”

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 Organization, 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.

Two days after the explosion, Lebanese were flocking to a 20-tent Russian field hospital newly established in the capital’s largest sports stadium.

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.