Lebanese President Michel Aoun said on Friday that there were two possible causes of Tuesday’s explosion which killed nearly 150 people – either negligence or “outside intervention” by a missile or bomb.
He also rejected the call by the United Nations Human Rights Commission for an international investigation.
The explosion is believed to have occurred when a fire ignited 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate stored in the port. The cause of the initial fire is unknown.
Aoun said on Friday he had asked France for satellite images to see if there were any fighter jets or missiles in the air at the time of the explosion. This differs from the main narrative of the past few days, which was about the investigation into the Lebanese port and customs authorities for negligence.
Also on Friday, the Lebanese state news agency said investigating magistrate Ghassan Khoury had placed customs department chief Badri Daher under arrest. Daher said he had warned officials of ammonium nitrate several times over the years.
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Aoun told reporters he received information weeks ago about the hazardous materials and “immediately ordered” military and security officials to deal with it. Aoun’s comments were the oldest confirmation that senior politicians knew about the reservation.
“The material was there for seven years, since 2013. It was there, and they said it was dangerous, and I’m not responsible for it,” said Aoun, who took office in 2016.
At least 10 times in the past six years, Lebanese customs, military, security and justice officials have alarmed that a massive stockpile of explosive chemicals is being kept with almost no collateral in the port in the heart of Beirut, according to recently released documents. , according to the Associated Press.
‘A titanic job’
Aoun said the Lebanese government’s investigation into the cause of the explosion is focusing on 20 people. Port officials have been placed under house arrest.
Disinformation on social media blamed Israel, but Israeli officials denied any involvement and offered aid to Lebanon.
French Forensic Police No.2 Dominique Abbenanti said on Friday that the explosion “appears to be an accident” but that it is too early to know. France, which has close ties to its former colony, has sent 22 investigators.
French police could question witnesses or suspects, said Eric Berot, head of a unit involved in the investigation. For now, the French team is dividing the areas to be covered with its Lebanese counterparts and will use drones to study the area.
“The area is huge. It’s a titanic job, ”said Berot. 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 suspicions of U.S. generals he did not name. However, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper later said it was likely an accident.
Tuesday’s explosion had the force of at least 500 tonnes of TNT, according to a US government source, who was not authorized to speak publicly. The estimate was based on widespread destruction, said the source, who has experience with military explosives.
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The explosion caused carnage within a 10 km radius and was felt more than 160 km away.
Ammonium nitrate has been linked to past industrial accidents, including explosions at a Texas fertilizer plant in 2013, a Chinese port in 2015, and many more.
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It was also used in the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995, when a truck bomb containing 2.4 tons of fertilizer and fuel oil killed 168 people in a federal building. It is a very explosive common fertilizer.
Storage is essential. Left unchecked, ammonium nitrate can be contaminated with 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 are orange or reddish in color.
Videos from the Beirut disaster 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 as a shock wave hits.
Rescue and recovery
The government estimated that 300,000 people – more than 12% of Beirut’s population – had to leave homes damaged by the explosion. Many have since returned or are staying with loved ones. Officials estimate the explosion caused losses of $ 10 billion to $ 15 billion.
Rescuers continued to remove bodies from the wreckage on Friday.
“Our experience shows that we can find people alive for up to 72, 75 or 80 hours after an explosion or an earthquake, so for now we are still in time and we are clinging to that hope”, said Colonel Vincent Tissier, head of the French rescue team.
Non-governmental organizations in Lebanon before the explosion were already struggling to provide the necessary assistance to the country. HOPE Worldwide is one such organization that has been providing assistance to the country since last October.
In addition to providing and distributing food, the Lebanese branch of HOPE Worldwide is preparing to renovate and rebuild homes damaged by the blast.
“That’s all we can (do) as an NGO,” said Mofid Tohme, president of the Lebanese branch of HOPE Worldwide.
Thousands of Lebanese citizens took to the streets in the days following the explosion, bringing their own brooms, shovels and other materials to help clean the streets of Beirut, according to Lebanese activist Ralph Baydou.
“It is also what keeps the state alive,” Baydou said. “We, the Lebanese citizens intervening in the place of the State”.
Contributing: Dennis Wagner, Sarah Elbeshbishi, Anne Godlasky, USA TODAY; The Associated Press