August 8, 2020

LEBANON: A Massive Explosion At Ammunition Warehouse With 2,750 Tonnes Of Ammonium Nitrate Flattened Much Of Beirut Port District. 154 People Dead, 5,000 Injured, 300,000 Homeless.

Breitbart News
written by Frances Martel
Thursday August 6, 2020

A Lebanese lawmaker revealed evidence on Wednesday that customs officials tried to get the government to secure a stash of ammonium nitrate, a combustible material, at least six times and received no guidance.

Lebanese authorities believe the nitrate was responsible for Tuesday’s deadly blast in Beirut.

As of Thursday, authorities have tallied 157 deaths and 5,000 injuries after a massive explosion reduced much of the Beirut port district to ashes this week. Multiple eyewitness videos show a large fire near the shore that consumed much of the area before erupting and taking down blocks of buildings and shattering the windows of those left standing. Authorities estimate that 300,000 people are now homeless.

Prime Minister Hassan Diab said in an address late Tuesday that authorities had traced the blast to the high concentration — nearly 3,000 tons — of ammonium nitrate in a warehouse in the area. The material had been there, he added, since officials confiscated it from a ship seized at the port in 2013. For nearly eight years, it appears no one attempted to move the material to a less populated and more secure place.

“What happened today will not fly by without accountability. All those responsible for this catastrophe will pay the price,” Diab said. “This is a promise I make to martyrs and injured. This is a national commitment.”

President Michel Aoun announced Wednesday that police would place all officials responsible for storing and securing confiscated materials at the Beirut port under house arrest if they executed that responsibility between 2014 and Tuesday.

On Thursday, Lebanese banks also received orders to freeze any assets affiliated with Beirut Port General Manager Hassan Koraytem and Lebanese Customs Director-General Badri Daher.

Adding to evidence of negligence, lawmaker Salim Aoun published documents on Twitter that he claimed were letters from customs officials in Beirut to the court responsible for the seizure of the ammonium nitrate. According to the New York Times, the officials wrote the court “at least six times from 2014 to 2017” asking how to dispose of the material, or at least remove it from the densely populated port area. They never received an answer and the material stayed in place.

The Times also shared that a local broadcaster interviewed Koraytem, the general manager of the Port of Beirut, on Wednesday who confirmed, “We have been waiting for this to be resolved for six years, in vain.”

The Lebanese outlet al-Akhbar relayed that Daher, the customs chief, similarly insisted that the negligence apparently leading to the explosion did not begin with him, insisting that he had done “more than [his] duty” to responsibly tend to the ammonium nitrate.

Al-Akhbar added information of reports regarding what exactly led to the ammonium nitrate blowing up. Initially, some Lebanese officials claimed on Tuesday that the fire was the result of an accident at a fireworks factory. Officials subsequently changed their story, and some Lebanese outlets reported construction of some kind happening near the warehouse storing the explosive material; there is no evidence any construction crew in the area would know that they were working near highly combustible material.

Welding work overheated an area near the explosive material, al-Akhbar claimed, allegedly resulting in the detonation of the ammonium nitrate.

Senior-level Lebanese officials have not confirmed this report.

The ammonium nitrate reportedly originated in a Russian-owned ship, the MV Rhosus, which made an unannounced stop in Beirut in 2013 allegedly en route to Mozambique. The ship has since reportedly sank, but its former captain Boris Prokoshev confirmed to Radio Free Europe (RFE) that it had been carrying tons of ammonium nitrate when Lebanese officials confiscated its cargo and seized the ship. Russian oligarch Igor Grechushkin reportedly owned the ship; according to Prokoshev, Grechushkin stopped paying them shortly before the seizure.

“They were being greedy,” Prokoshev told Reuters in a report published Thursday, adding the detail that he and his crew spent almost a year on the ship while docked in Beirut, largely because officials did not want to leave its combustible cargo alone.

“The cargo was highly explosive. That’s why it was kept on board when we were there … That ammonium nitrate had a very high concentration,” Prokoshev said.

The ammonium nitrate was reportedly heading to Mozambique to be used by Fรกbrica de Explosivos de Moรงambique (FEM), a company that specializes in manufacturing commercial-grade explosives and never meant to stop in Lebanon.

“Aware that the manufacture of explosives is an activity that requires high standards of control, the Fรกbrica de Explosivos Mozambique directed its strategy for progressive improvement, skill development of their employees focusing constantly on their training and qualification, profitability of resources based on the most up to date technology, never losing its highest
point – safety,” the firm’s website explains.

FEM has not made any public comments regarding the incident in Lebanon.

Lebanese officials have insisted no evidence exists of a terrorist attack or intentional detonation, a claim that the general population appears to have accepted. Lebanon has experienced months of protests throughout the past year against its government for assorted accusations of incompetence – the collapse of the economy, a lack of consistent access to electricity, and failure to offer basic government services like garbage collection in an appropriate manner.

“For me, this state is a dump — and on behalf of yesterday’s victims, the dump that killed them is going to stay a dump,” Melissa Fadlallah, a Beirut resident volunteering to help clean up the city on Wednesday, told Agence France-Presse (AFP). At the time, AFP said the city was noting a marked “absence of a state-sponsored cleanup operation.”

“If we had a real state, it would have been in the street since last night cleaning and working. Where are they?” she asked.
BBC News
written by Staff
Friday August 7, 2020

UN agencies have warned of a humanitarian crisis in Lebanon after Tuesday's devastating blast in Beirut.

Lebanon was already suffering a major economic downturn before the explosion, which left at least 154 people dead, 5,000 injured and 300,000 homeless.

The World Food Programme said the damage to Beirut's port would interrupt food supplies and push prices up.

The World Health Organization said the health system was seriously damaged, with three hospitals out of action.

Meanwhile, Lebanese President Michel Aoun rejected calls for an international investigation into the explosion, and said local authorities would examine whether it was triggered by "external interference" such as a bomb.

The leader of the militant Hezbollah movement, Hassan Nasrallah, also denied allegations that it had stored weapons or ammunition at the port.

The government has said the blast was the result of the detonation of 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate that had been stored unsafely at the port for six years.

The decision to keep so much explosive material in a warehouse near the city centre has been met with disbelief and fury by many Lebanese, who have long accused the political elite of corruption, neglect and mismanagement.

How bad is the humanitarian situation?

Before Tuesday's explosion, 75% of Lebanese were in need of aid, 33% had lost their jobs, and one million people were living below the poverty line.

WFP spokeswoman Elisabeth Byrs told reporters in Geneva that the organisation was concerned the severe damage to Beirut's port - the largest in the country - could limit the flow of food supplies and push prices beyond the reach of many.

The WFP was sending 5,000 food parcels that would be enough to feed a family of five for a month, and was planning to import wheat flour and grains, she said.

Christian Lindmeier of the WHO meanwhile warned that Lebanon's hospitals were overwhelmed with the patients, some were damaged and some non-functional, and that 500 beds had been lost.

The UN Refugee Agency, which normally supports Lebanon's 1.5 million Syrian refugees, said it was releasing emergency shelter materials to all those in need.

Many countries have offered aid to help Lebanon, with the US announcing on Friday that it planned to immediately send $15m worth of food and medicine.

What is happening with the investigation?
Lebanon's president and prime minister have said the ammonium nitrate - which is commonly used as a fertiliser but can also made into an explosive - had been stored in a warehouse at the port without any safety precautions since 2014, when it was unloaded from an impounded cargo ship.

On Wednesday, Mr Aoun promised a transparent investigation by Lebanese authorities and to "hold those responsible and those who were negligent accountable, and serve them the most severe punishment".

However, calls for international investigation have grown since then.

The president ruled out such a move on Friday, saying: "The goal behind calls for an international investigation into the port issue is to dilute the truth."

He also said the government-backed inquiry was looking into three possibilities: negligence, accident or what he called "external interference through a rocket or bomb or other act".

Officials have said the explosion appears to have been triggered by a fire and there has been no evidence so far of the third possibility mentioned by Mr Aoun.

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, Mr Aoun's political ally, meanwhile denied any responsibility for the blast, insisting that his group did not control the port and that it had stored no weapons or ammunition there.

"Not a weapons cache, not a missile factory, not a single missile, not a single rifle, not a single bomb, not a bullet, not nitrates. Nothing at all. Not now, not in the past," he declared in a speech.

BBC Middle East analyst Sebastian Usher says Mr Nasrallah's denial is necessary because many Lebanese believe the exact opposite - he needs to shore up his position and that of his movement, which still wields decisive power in Lebanon.
The Times of Israel
written by Staff and agencies
Wednesday August 5, 2020

At least three Israeli hospitals offered on Tuesday to help treat the thousands of Lebanese injured in the massive explosions that ripped through Beirut.

The explosions flattened much of the city’s port, damaging buildings across the capital and sending a giant mushroom cloud into the sky. More than 70 people were killed and 3,000 injured, with bodies buried in the rubble, officials said.

Israel offered humanitarian aid to Lebanon in a rare show of support for the enemy country, and three hospitals said they were volunteering their services.

Ziv Medical Center in the northern town of Safed and Rambam Medical Center in Haifa both said they would take in injured.

We are “experienced and prepared,” Ziv said. Both northern hospitals have extensive experience treating patients from hostile countries and were involved in treating Syrians wounded in the civil war. Ziv has treated more than 5,000 Syrian patients since 2013, keeping their identities confidential.

Sheba Medical Center outside Tel Aviv also offered aid.

“We have offered any medical assistance needed to the injured in the Lebanon explosion disaster,” hospital director Yitshak Kreiss told Army Radio. “We are obligated to help anyone who needs assistance, especially our neighbors. We are ready and prepared for any mission we will be given.”

Sheba routinely treats Palestinian patients and has run training courses for Palestinian nurses from the West Bank and Gaza

Several of Beirut’s hospitals were damaged in the blast. Roum Hospital put out a call for people to bring it spare generators to keep its electricity going as it evacuated patients because of heavy damage.

Outside the St. George University Hospital in Beirut’s Achrafieh neighborhood, people with various injuries arrived in ambulances, in cars and on foot. The explosion had caused major damage inside the building and knocked out the electricity at the hospital. Dozens of injured were being treated on the spot on the street outside, on stretchers and wheelchairs.

“This is a catastrophe we have on our hands,” said one doctor, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to make press statements.

Earlier, Israel offered Lebanon any assistance it needed.

“Israel approached Lebanon through international defense and diplomatic channels to offer the Lebanese government medical humanitarian aid,” Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi said in a joint statement.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he instructed his national security adviser, Meir Ben Shabbat, to discuss with UN envoy Nickolay Mladenov how Israel can assist Lebanon.

Mladenov confirmed Israel’s offer to work through the UN in a tweet, saying, “The region and the world must come together to help the people of Lebanon through this time of anguish.”

President Reuven Rivlin, in tweets in English, Arabic and Hebrew, added: “We share the pain of the Lebanese people and sincerely reach out to offer our aid at this difficult time.”

Lebanon was not expected to take the Jewish state up on the offer, despite the already-ailing country’s woes.

An initial explosion appeared to engulf a fireworks storehouse, which then sparked a massive mushroom cloud, sending a shockwave racing across the city. Abbas Ibrahim, chief of Lebanese General Security, said it might have been caused by highly explosive material that was confiscated from a ship some time ago and stored at the port. Local television channel LBC said the material was sodium nitrate.

Though some suspicions around the blast turned to Israel, due in part to its recent clashes with Hezbollah, both sides denied any link.

Israel has fought a number of wars in Lebanon, home of the Iran-backed Hezbollah terror group, which is sworn to the Jewish state’s destruction and is part of the Lebanese government. From 1982 to 2000 Israel occupied a swath of southern Lebanon to push out Palestinian groups, and in 2006 fought a devastating war against Hezbollah in the country.

While Israel in the past has avoided direct confrontation with Lebanon’s US-backed armed forces, it has indicated in recent years that it may not do so in a future conflict.

Tensions have been high on the Israeli-Lebanese border recently, after Israel said it thwarted an infiltration attempt by up to five Hezbollah gunmen — a claim denied by Hezbollah. Israel has been bracing for an attack from Hezbollah after the terror group accused it of killing one of its men in an airstrike in Syria last month.

An Israeli government official said Israel “had nothing to do” with the blast. He spoke on condition of anonymity, because he was not authorized to discuss the matter with the media.
UPDATE 8/10/20 at 4:35pm: Added info below.

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