The government of Lebanon has given an “investigative committee” four days to determine responsibility for the devastating explosion in Beirut port on Tuesday, Foreign Minister Charbel Wehbe told French radio Thursday.
“This morning, a decision was taken to create an investigative committee which in four days maximum must provide a detailed report on responsibility — how, who, what, where? There will be judicial decisions,” he told Europe 1 radio.
“It is serious, and we take it seriously,” Wehbe said.
“Those responsible for this horrible crime of negligence will be punished by a committee of judges,” he added.
The provisional death toll from the massive blast stood at 137 Thursday, but with dozens missing and 5,000 wounded, the number of victims was expected to rise as rescue workers continued to comb through the rubble.
The Beirut governor estimated up to 300,000 people may have been made temporarily homeless by the disaster, which he said would cost the debt-ridden country in excess of $3 billion.
On Wednesday, the government called for the house arrest of those responsible for the storage of a large quantity of ammonium nitrate, a substance used in fertilisers and explosives, in the port of the Lebanese capital.
According to Lebanese officials, the explosion was caused by a fire igniting 2,750 tonnes of the substance in a portside warehouse.
“It is an accident… preliminary reports indicate it is mismanagement of explosive products. This is a very serious neglect that continued for six years,’ said Wehbe.
Prime Minister Hassan Diab and President Michel Aoun have promised to put the culprits behind bars, but trust in institutions is low and few on the streets of the Lebanese capital hold out hope of an impartial inquiry.
Human Rights Watch on Thursday supported mounting calls for an international probe as the only credible option.
“An independent investigation with international experts is the best guarantee that victims of the explosion will get the justice they deserve,” the watchdog said.
In France, prosecutors on Wednesday opened a probe into the blast over injuries inflicted on 24 French citizens.
Flights carrying medical aid, field hospitals, rescue experts, and tracking dogs have been flying into Beirut airport since Wednesday.
And French President Emmanuel Macron was expected in Lebanon later Thursday, the highest-ranking foreign leader to visit since the tragedy.
Macron was due to meet Aoun and other political leaders as well as civil society representatives.
For at least six years, hundreds of tonnes of ammonium nitrate, which Lebanese authorities say caused Tuesday’s massive blast, were negligently stored in a Beirut port warehouse, waiting for disaster to strike.
The odourless crystalline substance commonly used as a fertiliser has caused numerous industrial explosions over the decades — including the massive one in Beirut that killed at least 113 people, wounded thousands, and left 300,000 homeless.
A security source said the explosive power of the stored ammonium nitrate was equivalent to at least 1,200 tonnes of TNT — explaining how the earthquake-strength blast destroyed or damaged so much of the city.
Lebanese port authorities and customs officials knew the chemical was being stored in the port, and one of the country’s top security agencies had called for it to be relocated after launching a probe last year, several security officials told AFP.
But authorities did not heed the warning. Only on the day after the massive blast left much of the capital in ruins did the government say it was seeking house arrest for all officials involved in storing the highly-explosive substance.
With Tuesday’s blast damage extending across half the Lebanese capital, the burning questions on everyone’s mind are: how did so much ammonium nitrate get to Beirut in the first place and why was it stored at the port for so long?
In 2013, around 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate came into Lebanon on board the Rhosus ship, sailing from Georgia and bound for Mozambique, a security official told AFP, asking not to be named because he is not authorised to speak on the issue.
Marine Traffic, a ship tracking platform, said the Moldova-flagged vessel first arrived in Beirut’s port, the country’s busiest, on November 20, 2013 and never left.
According to Lebanese law firm Baroudi & Associates, which represents the vessel’s crew, the Rhosus ship had faced “technical problems”.
“Upon inspection of the vessel by port state control, the vessel was forbidden from sailing,” the firm said in a statement.
Several security officials told AFP that it temporarily docked at the port but was later seized by authorities following a lawsuit filed by a Lebanese company against the shipowner.
Port authorities unloaded the ammonium nitrate and stored it in a rundown port warehouse with cracks in its walls, and the ship sank some time later because of damage, the officials said.
The warehouse started to exude a strange odour, which led security forces to launch a 2019 investigation that concluded that the “dangerous” chemicals needed to be removed from the premises.
The agency also noted the walls of the warehouse were unsound, urging the port authorities to repair them.
It was not until this week that workers were dispatched and began repair works, in what might have possibly triggered the blast.
Shortly after Tuesday’s blast, the director of customs at the port, Badri Daher, published a letter he said he had sent in December 2017 to a Lebanese prosecutor, claiming it was one of many he had sent to the judiciary over the stored chemicals.
In the 2017 letter, he allegedly requested the dangerous chemicals be exported or sold to a local Lebanese company after the army had said it had no use for them, but neither suggestion materialised.
A judicial source said prosecutors were only involved in ruling whether or not the ammonium nitrate-carrying vessel should be released and were not involved in issues pertaining to the substance’s storage.
Riad Kobaissi, an investigative reporter who specialises in port corruption, charged that Daher was only trying to deflect blame by publishing the letter.
He said what has happened shows “the extent of corruption in Lebanese port customs, which is among the main bodies that bear responsibility” for the blast.
Among many, the disaster has only fuelled anger at a government already widely seen as inept, corrupt, and beholden to sectarian interests.
On Twitter, users blamed authorities, using the hashtag “hang them from the gallows”.
One user posted a photo showing several prominent Lebanese politicians with the caption: “You have to pay for burning the hearts of mothers and the future of the youth and terrorising children.”
His head bandaged just like his patients, Dr Antoine Qurban said Tuesday’s enormous blast brought “Armageddon” to Beirut’s overwhelmed hospitals in chaotic scenes reminiscent of a war zone.
“Wounded people bleeding out in the middle of the street, others lying on the ground in the hospital courtyard — it reminded me of my missions with Doctors Without Borders (MSF) in Afghanistan many years ago,” he said of his volunteer stint with the medical charity.
The surgeon was among more than 4,000 wounded people who staggered or were taken into badly damaged and massively crowded hospitals across the devastated Lebanese capital on Tuesday evening.
The huge explosion has piled even more pressure on Lebanon’s strained health sector, which before the disaster was already struggling with a wave of coronavirus cases and a severe economic crisis.
“It was Armageddon,” Qurban, who is in his late sixties, told AFP outside the Hotel Dieu Hospital in central Beirut.
The facility is normally his place of work, but on Wednesday he was among throngs of patients, following up on a gash he suffered Tuesday night.
Qurban was at a nearby coffee shop when the blast hit around 6:00 pm local time, flinging him some 20 metres (60 feet) across the room.
His own hospital was overflowing within minutes with wounded, so a stranger on a motorcycle zipped him to another facility.
After an hours-long wait, a medic stitched up his head wound in the street.
‘She’s already dead’
The scenes were no less chaotic on Wednesday, as people wounded overnight by falling shards of glass sought treatment, weaving between smashed equipment and piles of debris in Hotel Dieu’s hallways.
Mothers asked desperately about the fates of their wounded sons. An elderly man begged for news of his wife, who had been transferred from another hospital.
A cacophony of cellphones rang, and fragments of exhausted conversations could be heard, usually retelling survival stories.
“A miracle kept him alive,” one woman was heard saying, while a man with a bandaged leg handed a blinking cellphone to his sister, telling her simply that “I can’t talk anymore”.
Hotel Dieu treated at least 300 wounded Tuesday and registered 13 dead, according to its medical director Dr George Dabar, who was a medical student there during Lebanon’s 15-year civil war.
“Even then, I didn’t see anything like what I saw yesterday,” he said.
His voice cracking with emotion, Dabar told AFP the hardest moment was telling families their loved ones had died, with nothing left to be done.
“It’s so hard to tell a father carrying his young daughter and trying to save her that she’s already dead.”
According to Lebanon’s health ministry, two hospitals were rendered completely out of service and two more were partly unusable.
At least five nurses died, and several medics and patients were severely hurt.
“The medical teams were already exhausted by everything that has happened in this country and by the coronavirus pandemic,” Dabar said.
“But to face yesterday’s crisis, they came together with amazing solidarity.”
From cooks to maintenance workers, Dabar said, the entire staff was working side by side so Hotel Dieu could stay open.
Evacuating COVID-19 patients
The St. George Hospital was not so lucky. The blast left the facility, one of Beirut’s oldest, with collapsed ceilings and electrical wires hanging over beds showered with glass.
“We are not in service anymore,” said St. George Hospital’s chief of staff Eid Azar.
“Amid the current economic situation, I don’t know how much time it will take to repair,” he told AFP.
Staff worked until just before dawn to evacuate patients, equipment and files.
“We did a hospital evacuation, which very rarely happens,” and which included the highly sensitive transfer of 20 patients being treated for COVID-19, he said.
Azar said the emergency operation reminded him of Hurricane Katrina, the devastating natural disaster that hit the US in 2005.
The courtyard was turned into a field clinic, where doctors in bloodied medical robes treated shell-shocked people in the open.
“There’s nothing harder than evacuating a hospital filled to the brim with patients while even more wounded are coming,” said Azar.
“The hospital staff itself was wounded and we needed to transfer our own employees.”
Medics carried patients from nine separate floors one by one on stretchers, as the blast had knocked out the elevators.
Without electricity or water, nurses took great risks to provide whatever life-saving support they could.
“The hospital lights are usually on 24 hours a day — it was completely dark,” said clinical nurse specialist Lara Daher.
“We stitched up patients by the light of our cellphones last night. I don’t know how we did it. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Two enormous explosions rocked the Lebanese capital’s port on Tuesday, killing and wounding dozens of people, shaking buildings and sending huge plumes of smoke billowing into the Beirut sky.
Video footage of the second blast showed an enormous orange fireball that dwarfed nearby buildings and sent a devastating tornado-like shockwave ripping through the city.
“We heard an explosion, then we saw the mushroom,” said one resident who witnessed the second, deafening explosion from her balcony in the city’s Mansourieh district.
“The force of the blast threw us backwards into the apartment,” she said.
Lebanese media carried images of people trapped under rubble, many bloodied, after the massive blasts, the cause of which was not immediately known.
A soldier at the port, who asked not to be named, told AFP: “It’s a catastrophe inside. There are corpses on the ground. Ambulances are still lifting the dead.”
The official National News Agency confirmed deaths in the blast, without citing a number.
The explosions “caused dozens of injuries,” a security source said.
The AFP correspondent said every shop in the Hamra commercial district had sustained damage, with entire storefronts destroyed, windows shattered and many cars wrecked.
Injured people were walking in the street, while outside the Clemenceau Medical Centre, dozens of wounded people, many covered in blood, were rushing to be admitted to the centre, including children.
Destroyed cars had been abandoned in the street with their airbags inflated.
A huge cloud of black smoke was engulfing the entire port area, as helicopters flew to dump water on the burning buildings.
The port zone was cordoned off by the security forces, allowing access only to a string of ambulances, fire trucks and people whose relatives were working inside the devastated area, while others were screaming to be let through.
A huge blaze was burning at the port, where ambulances were rushing away the wounded, their sirens wailing.
The blasts were heard as far away as Nicosia on the eastern Mediterranean island of Cyprus, 240 kilometres (150 miles) away.
Benjamin Strick, who works with investigations website Bellingcat, said on Twitter that the explosions appeared to have been centred on a 130 metre (420 foot) grey warehouse alongside a dock inside the port zone.
Video stills showed a intense blazing fireball rising higher than a line of towering storage silos, with a subsequent cloud towering into the sky.
‘Like an earthquake’
“Buildings are shaking,” tweeted one resident, while another wrote: “An enormous, deafening explosion just engulfed Beirut. Heard it from miles away.”
Online footage from a Lebanese newspaper office showed blown out windows, scattered furniture and demolished interior panelling.
The explosions hit Lebanon as it suffers its worst economic crisis in decades which has left nearly half of the population in poverty.
The country’s economy has collapsed in recent months, with the local currency plummeting against the dollar, businesses closing en masse and poverty soaring at the same alarming rate as unemployment.
The country’s worst crisis since the 1975-1990 civil war has sparked months of street demonstrations against the government.
The explosions also come as Lebanon awaits a UN tribunal’s verdict Friday on the 2005 murder of former Lebanese premier Rafic Hariri, killed in a huge truck bomb attack.
Four alleged members of the Shiite Muslim movement Hezbollah are on trial in absentia at a court in the Netherlands over the huge Beirut bombing that killed Sunni billionaire Hariri and 21 other people.
A woman in the city centre Tuesday told AFP: “It felt like an earthquake … I felt it was bigger than the explosion in the assassination of Rafic Hariri in 2005”.
Tensions have also been high with neighbouring Israel, after Israel said it thwarted an infiltration attempt by up to five Hezbollah gunmen, a claim denied by the Lebanon-based and Iran-backed group.
At least 20 civilians were killed on Sunday as Syrian regime forces were poised to retake a key motorway connecting Damascus to second city Aleppo, after weeks of battles in the rebel-held Idlib region, a monitor said.
The regime and its Russian ally have been engaged in a fierce weeks-long offensive to take back the vital M5 artery which connects Aleppo, once Syria’s economic hub, to Damascus and the Jordanian border.
A section of the highway southwest of Aleppo city still lies under control of rebels and jihadists who dominate a shrinking, densely populated territory centred on neighbouring Idlib province.
Pro-regime forces have been chipping away at the area in an assault that has sent half a million people fleeing north towards the Turkish border.
Deadly raids on Sunday by regime ally Russia left 14 people dead, including nine in the village of Kar Nuran in southwestern Aleppo province, near the last stretch of the M5 still in rebel hands, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Syrian air raids with crude barrel bombs also killed four civilians in the Atareb district east of Aleppo, while another died in artillery fire near the city of Jisr Al-Shughur, it said.
The last civilian was killed in regime airstrikes on Ketian village in southern Idlib.
Recapturing the M5 would allow traffic to resume between war-torn Syria’s main business hubs, helping the regime revive a moribund economy after nearly nine years of war.
After weeks of steady regime advances in Syria’s northwest, only a two-kilometer section of the M5 remains outside government control, according to the Observatory.
Pro-government forces were closing on Sunday on the last segment southwest of Aleppo, neighbouring Idlib, the Britain-based war monitor said.
“Regime forces have gained new ground and now control several villages near the motorway,” Observatory head Rami Abdul Rahman told AFP.
Fighting was ongoing in the area early Sunday evening with bombing intensifying, he said.
Half a million displaced
Since December, Russian-backed government forces have pressed a blistering assault against Idlib, Syria’s last major opposition bastion, retaking town after town.
The violence has killed more than 300 civilians and sent some 586,000 fleeing towards relative safety nearer the Turkish border.
Some three million people are now trapped in the Idlib region, around half of whom have already fled other parts of the country.
The Syrian army said in a statement Sunday it had recaptured 600 square kilometres (232 square miles) in recent days, comprising “dozens of villages and locations” in south Idlib and west Aleppo provinces.
The Syrian government on Sunday approved a plan aimed at “progressively re-establishing services in liberated areas”, official news agency SANA reported.
That came a day after the army captured the Idlib town of Saraqeb, located on a junction of the M5, state media said.
Troops then pressed north along the motorway past Idlib’s provincial borders and linked up with a unit of Syrian soldiers in Aleppo province, according to the Observatory and state agency SANA.
It was the first time in weeks the two units joined up after waging separate offensives against rebels and jihadists in Idlib and Aleppo.
A little more than half of Idlib province remains in rebel hands, along with slivers of neighbouring Aleppo and Latakia provinces.
Some 50,000 fighters are in the shrinking pocket, many of them jihadists but the majority allied rebels, according to the Observatory.
The United Nations and aid groups have appealed for an end to hostilities in the Idlib region, warning that the exodus risks creating one of the worst humanitarian catastrophes of the nearly nine-year war.
An airstrike in eastern Syria killed eight fighters of Iraq’s Hashed al-Shaabi paramilitary force overnight, a war monitor said on Friday.
“Unidentified aircraft targeted vehicles and arms depots in the Albu Kamal area, causing a large explosion. At least eight Iraqi Hashed fighters were killed,” the head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Rami Abdel Rahman, said.
He said several others were wounded.
Through a spokesman contacted by AFP, the US-led military coalition operating in Syria and Iraq denied carrying out the strike.
Abdel Rahman said three villages in the Albu Kamal area known for housing forces loyal to Tehran have been targeted by drone strikes since Wednesday, causing no casualties.
Syria’s war began as a peaceful uprising that was swiftly crushed in a regime crackdown. Almost nine years on, more than 380,000 people have died, and millions more have fled.
After Russian President Vladimir Putin — a key ally of Damascus — on Tuesday made a surprise visit to the country, here is a summary of the main events in the conflict:
Revolt to repression
In March 2011, protests break out to demand political change after four decades of repressive rule by the Assad dynasty.
President Bashar al-Assad’s regime cracks down on demonstrations but rallies continue.
In July an army colonel who has defected from the military sets up the Turkey-based opposition Free Syrian Army (FSA).
An armed rebellion erupts, with support from western and Arab countries. The rebels seize key territory, including large swathes of third city Homs and a chunk of the ancient city of Aleppo.
In 2012 regime forces step up their crackdown, carrying out bloody operations, notably in the central city of Hama, a bastion of opposition to the Assad regime.
In July FSA fighters launch a battle for Damascus but the government holds firm.
From 2013 regime helicopters and planes unleash air strikes, some of them using barrel bombs, on rebel zones.
The same year Iran-backed Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah confirms it has deployed fighters to back Syrian government forces.
Iran also boosts its support for Assad.
On August 21, 2013, chemical attacks blamed on the regime on two rebel-held areas near Damascus reportedly kill more than 1,400 people. The regime denies the charge.
Then US president Barack Obama pulls back from threatened punitive strikes on Syrian regime infrastructure, instead of agreeing a deal with Moscow that is meant to dismantle Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal.
Islamic State group
In June 2014, the jihadist Islamic State group proclaims a “caliphate” over territory it has seized in Syria and Iraq.
In September a US-led coalition launches airstrikes against IS in Syria.
The strikes benefit Kurdish groups, who since 2013 have run autonomous administrations in Kurdish-majority areas.
Kurds join with Arabs to form the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
They oust IS from key areas including the jihadists’ de facto capital Raqa in 2017, and then in 2019 their last Syrian holdout, the village of Baghuz.
In October IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is killed during a US special services operation in northwestern Syria.
Russia steps in
In September 2015 Russia launches airstrikes in support of Assad’s troops, in a campaign that will prove to be a turning point in the war.
In a string of deadly campaigns, the regime retakes key rebel bastions, from Aleppo in 2016 to Eastern Ghouta in 2018.
In April 2017 a sarin gas attack on the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhun kills more than 80 people.
US President Donald Trump unleashes missile strikes against the regime’s Shayrat airbase.
In April 2018, the US, with the support of France and Britain, launches retaliatory strikes after an alleged regime chemical attack on the then rebel-held town of Douma, near Damascus.
Turkish offensive against Kurds
On October 9, 2019, Ankara launches an offensive targeting Kurdish forces in Syria, whom it brands “terrorists” linked to Kurdish insurgents in Turkey.
It follows Washington’s decision to withdraw US forces from the Turkey-Syria border area.
Turkey and its Syrian proxies have since taken a 120-kilometre by 30-kilometre stretch of the border.
Battle for Idlib
Since mid-December, the Syrian regime and its ally Russia have ramped up their bombardments of Idlib province in the northwest, involving ground battles with jihadists and rebels.
Damascus vows to reconquer the region, run by the powerful Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) jihadist alliance, led by Syria’s former Al-Qaeda affiliate.