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Lebanon Probes Blast Amid Rising Anger 08/06 06:33

   Lebanese officials targeted in the investigation of the massive blast that 
tore through Beirut sought to shift blame for the presence of explosives at the 
city's port, and the visiting French president warned Thursday that without 
serious reforms the country would "continue to sink."

   BEIRUT (AP) -- Lebanese officials targeted in the investigation of the 
massive blast that tore through Beirut sought to shift blame for the presence 
of explosives at the city's port, and the visiting French president warned 
Thursday that without serious reforms the country would "continue to sink."

   The blast Tuesday, which appeared to have been caused by an accidental fire 
that ignited a warehouse full of ammonium nitrate at the city's port, rippled 
across the Lebanese capital, killing at least 135 people, injuring more than 
5,000 and causing widespread destruction.

   It also may have accelerated the country's coronavirus outbreak, as 
thousands flooded into hospitals in the wake of the blast. Tens of thousands 
have been forced to move in with relatives and friends after their homes were 
damaged, further raising the risks of exposure.

   French President Emmanuel Macron visited Thursday amid widespread pledges of 
international aid. But Lebanon, which was already mired in a severe economic 
crisis, faces a daunting challenge in rebuilding. It's unclear how much support 
the international community will offer the notoriously corrupt and 
dysfunctional government.

   Macron, who viewed the devastated port and was to meet with senior Lebanese 
officials, said the visit is "an opportunity to have a frank and challenging 
dialogue with the Lebanese political powers and institutions."

   He said France will work to coordinate aid but warned that "if reforms are 
not made, Lebanon will continue to sink."

   Later, as he toured one of the hardest-hit neighborhoods, an angry crowd 
vented its fury at Lebanon's political leaders, chanting "Revolution" and "The 
people want to bring down the regime," slogans used during mass protests last 

   Macron said he was not there to endorse the "regime" and vowed that French 
aid would not fall into the "hands of corruption."

   Losses from the blast are estimated to be between $10 billion to $15 
billion, Beirut Gov. Marwan Abboud told the Saudi-owned TV station Al-Hadath on 
Wednesday, adding that nearly 300,000 people are homeless.

   The head of Lebanon's customs department meanwhile confirmed in an interview 
with LBC TV late Wednesday that officials had sent five or six letters over the 
years to the judiciary asking that the ammonium nitrate be removed because of 
the dangers it posed.

   But Badri Daher said all he could do was alert authorities to the presence 
of dangerous materials, saying even that was "extra work" for him and his 
predecessor. He said the port authority was responsible for the material, while 
his job was to prevent smuggling and collect duties.

   The judiciary and the port authority could not immediately be reached for 
comment. The government said Wednesday that an investigation was underway and 
that port officials have been placed under house arrest.

   The investigation into the explosion is focused on how 2,750 tons of 
ammonium nitrate, a highly explosive chemical used in fertilizers, came to be 
stored at the port facility for six years, and why nothing was done about it.

   The cargo had been stored at the port since it was confiscated from a ship 
years earlier. Based on the timeline and the size of the cargo, that ship could 
be the MV Rhosus. The ship was initially seized in Beirut in 2013 when it 
entered the port due to technical problems, according to lawyers involved in 
the case. It came from the nation of Georgia, and had been bound for Mozambique.

   The stockpile is believed to have detonated after a fire broke out nearby in 
what appeared to be a warehouse holding fireworks. Daher, the customs official, 
said he did not know if there were fireworks near the site.

   Another theory is that the fire began when welders were trying to repair a 
broken gate and a hole in the wall of Hangar 12, where the explosive material 
was stored. Local news reports say the repair work was ordered by security 
forces who investigated the facility and were concerned about theft.

   Security officials have declined to comment while the investigation is 
underway. Port officials have rejected the theory in interviews with local 
media, saying the welders completed their work long before the fire broke out.

   Anger is mounting against the various political factions, including the 
Iran-backed Hezbollah militant group, that have ruled the country since the 
1975-1990 civil war. The country's long-serving politicians are widely seen as 
being hopelessly corrupt and incapable of providing even basic services like 
electricity and trash collection.

   The tiny Mediterranean country was already on the brink of collapse, with 
soaring unemployment and a financial crisis that has wiped out people's life 
savings. Hospitals were already strained by the coronavirus pandemic, and one 
was so badly damaged by the blast it had to treat patients in a nearby field.

   Dr. Firas Abiad, director general of Rafik Hariri University Hospital, the 
public hospital leading the coronavirus fight, said he expects an increase in 
cases in the next 10 to 15 days linked to crowding at hospitals and blood 
donation centers after the blast.

   Authorities had largely contained the outbreak by imposing a sweeping 
lockdown in March and April, but case numbers have risen in recent weeks. A 
renewed lockdown was to go in effect this week but those plans were canceled 
after the explosion. The country has reported more than 5,400 coronavirus cases 
and 68 deaths since February.

   "There is no doubt that our immunity in the country is less than before the 
explosion and this will affect us medium- to long-term," Abiad said. "We 
desperately need aid, not only us but all hospitals in Lebanon."

   The explosion was the most powerful blast ever seen in the city, which has 
survived decades of war and conflict. Several city blocks were left littered 
with rubble, broken glass and damaged vehicles.

   Authorities have cordoned off the port itself, where the blast left a crater 
200 meters (yards) across and shredded a large grain silo, emptying its 
contents into the rubble. Estimates suggested about 85% of the import-reliant 
country's grain was stored there.

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