Aoun: Beirut explosion either due to negligence or bomb, rejects UN call for int’l investigation

This photo shows a general view of the scene of an explosion that hit the seaport of Beirut, Lebanon on Aug. 4, 2020. The massive explosion rocked Beirut flattening much of the city’s port, damaging buildings across the capital and sending a giant mushroom cloud into the sky. Killed at least 178 people, injured 6,000 people and forced around 300,000 out of their homes in the city, which was already sinking deep into financial crisis. Some 30-40 people remain missing. Damages were estimated at $15 – 20 billion

Lebanese President Michel Aoun says there are two possible causes of Tuesday’s explosion that killed nearly 150 people – either negligence or “external intervention” by a missile or bomb.

This photo shows a general view of the scene of an explosion that hit the seaport of Beirut, Lebanon, Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2020. The massive explosion rocked Beirut on Tuesday, flattening much of the city’s port, damaging buildings across the capital and sending a giant mushroom cloud into the sky. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)

He also rejected the United Nations human rights commission call for an international investigation.

It’s believed that the blast occurred when a fire ignited 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate stored at the port. The cause of the initial fire is unknown.

Aoun said Friday that he asked France for satellite images to see if there were warplanes or missiles in the air at the time of the blast. This differs from the main narrative of recent days, which focused on investigating Lebanese port and customs officials for negligence.

Aoun told journalists that he received information weeks ago about the ammonium nitrate and “immediately ordered” military and security officials to take care of it. 

“The material had been there for seven years, since 2013. It has been there, and they said it is dangerous and I am not responsible,” said Aoun, he took power in 2016. “I don’t know where it was placed. I don’t even know the level of danger.”

French President Emmanuel Macron is shown at the Baabda presidential palace (2nd L) with Speaker Nabih Berri ( L) president Michel Aoun (2nd R) and PM Hassan Diab (R) . In a show of respect for the people that wee killed in the explosion Macron wore a black tie while Aoun, Diab  and Berri, were wearing ties of different shades of blue. “I noted the anger present in the street of Lebanon,” Macron said at the palace, but none of the Lebanese leaders accepted any responsibility for the explosion of the 2750 tons of ammonium nitrate that has been stored by the government since 2013

‘A titanic job’

Aoun said the Lebanese government’s investigation into the cause of the explosion is concentrating on 20 people. Port officials have been put under house arrest. 

Some on social media blamed Israel, but Israeli officials have denied any involvement and have offered aid to Lebanon.

France’s No. 2 forensic police official, Dominique Abbenanti, said Friday the explosion “appears to be an accident” but that it’s too early to know. France, which has close ties to its former colony, sent 22 investigators.

French police could question witnesses or suspects, said Eric Berot, chief of a unit involved in the investigation. For now, the French team is dividing up zones to cover with their Lebanese counterparts and will use drones to study the area.

“The zone is enormous. It’s a titanic job,” Berot said. The investigation is complicated by  “the Lebanese situation,” he said, referring to the political and economic crisis.

Earlier this week, President Donald Trump called it a “terrible attack” based on the suspicions of U.S. generals he did not name. However, Defense Secretary Mark Esper later said it was likely an accident.

Ammonium nitrate

This tragic photo is showing the final moments when firefighters were sent to tackle a blaze at Warehouse 12 in Beirut’s port before the stockpile of 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate stored inside exploded with the force of a small nuke. The photographer is known to have died in the explosion while the fire crew are missing, believed to be dead.(Twitter)

Tuesday’s explosion had the force of at least 500 tons of TNT, according to a U.S. government source, who was not authorized to speak publicly. The estimate was based on the widespread destruction, said the source, who has experience with military explosives.

The blast caused carnage over a 6-mile radius and was felt more than 100 miles away.

Ammonium nitrate has been linked to past industrial accidents, including explosions at a fertilizer plant in Texas in 2013, a Chinese port in 2015 and many others. 

An Israeli woman walks as the municipality building is illuminated with the Lebanese flag In Tel Aviv, Israel, Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2020. Sebastian Scheiner, AP

It was also used in the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, when a truck bomb containing 2.4 tons of fertilizer and fuel oil killed 168 people in a federal building. It’s a common fertilizer that’s highly explosive.

Storage is critical. Left unchecked, ammonium nitrate can be contaminated by industrial elements such as fuel oil. The chemical can also decompose on its own, generating heat.

An explosion of ammonium nitrate releases gases, including nitrogen dioxide, which is orange or reddish in color.

Beirut disaster videos show a gray cloud rising from the port, in what appears to be a large industrial fire. A building explodes, creating an orange-reddish cloud, followed closely by a white mushroom cloud as a shock wave hits.

Rescue and recovery

French Securite Civile rescue workers board a military plane at Roissy airport, north of Paris, Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2020. The French emergency workers traveling to Lebanon include members of a special unit with chemical and other technological expertise trained to intervene in damaged industrial sites. French President Emmanuel Macron announced he would fly to the shattered Lebanese capital, and two planeloads of French rescue workers and aid were expected to touch down on Wednesday afternoon.
Bertrand Guay, AP

The government estimated 300,000 people – more than 12% of Beirut’s population – had to leave homes damaged by the blast. Many have since returned or are staying with loved ones. Officials estimate the explosion caused $10 billion to $15 billion in losses.

On Friday, rescuers continued pulling bodies from the wreckage.

“Our experience shows that we can find people alive until up to 72, 75 or 80 hours after an explosion or an earthquake, so for now we are still in time and we cling on to this hope,” said Col. Vincent Tissier, head of the French rescue team.

Non-governmental organizations in Lebanon before the explosion were already struggling to provide the aid needed to the country. HOPE worldwide is one of those organizations that has been providing assistance to the country since last October. 

In addition to providing and distributing food, the HOPE worldwide’s Lebanon branch is preparing to renovate and rebuild homes that suffered damaged from the explosion. 

Members of the Czech search and rescue team and their service dogs walk to board a plane at the Vaclav Havel airport in Prague, Czech Republic, Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2020. Czech Republic is sending some 37 personnel and 5 dogs to help search for victims of the deadly blast in Beirut, Lebanon.

“This is as much as we can (do) as an NGO,” Mofid Tohme, the president of HOPE Worldwide’s Lebanese branch, said. 

Thousands of Lebanese citizens filled the streets in the days after the blast, bringing their own brooms, shovels and other materials to help clean up the streets of Beirut, according to Lebanese activist Ralph Baydou. 

“This is what also what is keeping the state alive,” Baydou said. “Us, the Lebanese citizens stepping in instead of the State.”

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