Firefighters in Lebanon Monday battled to contain a fire at key fuel storage facilities, AFP correspondents and the National News Agency said, sparking alarm as the country grapples with dire hydrocarbon shortages.
The fire broke out at around 8.00am (0500 GMT) in a tank containing petrol belonging to the army at the Zahrani facilities some 50 kilometres (30 miles) south of Beirut, the National News Agency and local media said.
There was no immediate report of casualties.
A judicial source said an expert had been tasked with investigating the cause of the fire, but had been unable to approach the tank as the blaze still raged.
An AFP photographer saw flames lick up above the storage tank on fire, and huge plumes of dark smoke billowing into the sky.
Firemen worked to cool down the nearby tanks to prevent the fire from spreading.
The army cordoned off the area, cutting off roads leading to the facilities as well as the main highway linking Beirut to the country’s south, the photographer said.
– ‘Loud bang’ – A worker in a plantation near the facilities told AFP he had heard a loud bang before the fire broke out.
The Zahrani facilities also include the power plant of the same name, and provide 15 percent of the country’s fuel oil.
The Mediterranean nation is battling one of the planet’s worst economic crises since the 1850s, and has in recent months struggled to import enough fuel oil for its power plants.
In recent months, Lebanese have only received one or two hours of state electricity a day.
The fire comes after the electricity grid went completely offline on Saturday.
That outage came after two key power plants, including the one in Zahrani, ran out of fuel.
By Sunday limited supply was back after the army provided gas oil.
Most Lebanese saw no major change to their daily lives during the blackout, as those who can afford it have already subscribed to private generators to keep the lights on during the almost round-the-clock power cuts.
Petrol has also been in short supply, forcing motorists to queue for hours outside gas stations to fill up their tank.
Lebanon was plunged into a total blackout Saturday after two main power stations went offline because they ran out of fuel, the state electricity corporation said.
The Mediterranean country is battling one of the planet’s worst economic crises since the 1850s, and has in recent months struggled to import enough fuel oil for its power plants.
State electricity in most places is barely available for an hour a day amid rolling power cuts, while the fuel needed to power private back-up generators is also in short supply.
“After the Deir Ammar power station was forced to stop producing power yesterday morning (Friday) due its gasoil reserves running out, the Zahrani plant also stopped this afternoon for the same reason,” Electricite du Liban said in a statement.
This led to the network’s “complete collapse without any possibility of restoring it for the time being”, it said.
It was the second such complete outage reported by EDL since the start of the month, after a similar incident last Saturday.
A source at the energy ministry told AFP that all was being done “to find a way out of the problem”.
EDL said that a fuel oil shipment was expected to arrive on Saturday evening, and was expected to unload at the beginning of next week.
Restoring electricity is one of the many tough tasks facing Lebanon’s new government, formed last month after 13 months of political wrangling.
Several measures have been launched in a desperate bid to keep the lights on.
Lebanon has reached an agreement towards bringing Jordanian electricity and Egyptian gas into the country via war-torn Syria, while Shiite movement Hezbollah has separately started hydrocarbon deliveries from Iran.
The state is also bringing in some fuel oil for power stations in exchange for medical services under a swap deal with Iraq.
The international community has long demanded a complete overhaul of Lebanon’s loss-making electricity sector, which has cost the government more than $40 billion since the end of the 1975-1990 civil war.
Lebanese officials are set to visit Damascus Saturday to discuss plans to import gas through wartorn Syria’s territory in what would mark the first official diplomatic visit during the 10-year-old conflict.
The delegation includes Finance Minister Ghazi Wazni, Energy Minister Raymond Ghajar, General Security agency chief Abbas Ibrahim and Zeina Akar, who holds the posts of defence minister, foreign minister and deputy premier, Syria’s information ministry said in an invite sent to journalists.
They will be greeted at the Syrian side of the border at 10:30am (0730 GMT) by Syrian foreign minister Faisal Mekdad, the information ministry added.
A source at Lebanon’s energy ministry said the two sides will discuss plans to import natural gas via Jordan and Syria to ease Lebanon’s energy crisis.
The aim is to revive a 2009 agreement that allowed Lebanon to import gas from Egypt through Syria, the source said.
Lebanon has maintained diplomatic ties with Syria but it adopted a so-called policy of dissociation from the conflict since it started in 2011, which put a dampener on official dealings.
Lebanese security officials and politicians have made several visits to Syria in recent years, but almost exclusively in a personal capacity or on behalf of political parties that support President Bashar al-Assad’s government.
They include representatives of the powerful Iran-backed Hezbollah movement which has been battling alongside Assad’s forces in Syria since the early stages of the war.
Last November, a small Lebanese delegation participated in a Russian-sponsored conference in Damascus that discussed the return of Syrian refugees.
The upcoming visit comes after the Lebanese presidency last month said that Washington has agreed to help Lebanon secure electricity and natural gas from Jordan and Egypt through Syrian territory.
This implies that the US is willing to waive Western sanctions which prohibit any official transactions with the Syrian government and which have hampered previous attempts by Lebanon to source gas from Egypt.
Lebanon, a country of more than six million people, is grappling with an economic crisis branded by the World Bank as one of the planet’s worst in modern times.
The central bank is struggling to afford basic imports, including fuel, which has caused shortages and prolonged power cuts that now last as long as 22 hours per day.
A factory explosion in the Lebanese capital on Monday killed four people, the official National News Agency reported.
The blast happened inside a factory in the Burj al-Barajneh area in Beirut’s southern suburbs, the NNA said.
It did not specify the cause of the blast, but local media said a water heater had exploded.
Local television stations broadcast footage showing damage to vehicles parked outside the factory, and a video circulating on social media appeared to show three bodies on the building’s blood-soaked floor.
AFP could not independently verify the authenticity of the footage.
A fuel tank explosion in Lebanon killed 28 people and injured 80 on Sunday as a crowd clamoured for petrol, authorities and medics said, the latest catastrophe to spark outrage in the crisis-hit country.
The tragedy in the remote north overwhelmed medical facilities and heaped new misery on a nation already beset by an economic crisis and severe fuel shortages that have crippled hospitals and caused long power cuts.
It also revived bitter memories of a massive blast at Beirut port last August that killed more than 200 people and destroyed swathes of the capital.
The health ministry said the explosion in Al-Tleil village in the Akkar region killed 28 people and wounded 80.
Caretaker premier Hassan Diab’s office declared a national day of mourning for Monday.
Anger boiled over as protesters attacked the Beirut home of premier-designate Najib Mikati to demand his resignation, with rocks thrown and clashes with anti-riot forces, the official National News Agency (NNA) reported.
The military said a fuel tank that “had been confiscated by the army to distribute to citizens” exploded just before 2:00 am (2300 GMT) on Sunday.
Two soldiers died, 11 were critically injured and four are missing, it added.
The military began raiding petrol stations Saturday to curb hoarding after the central bank scrapped fuel subsidies.
The NNA said the blast followed scuffles as people crowded to get petrol.
Hospitals in Akkar, one of Lebanon’s poorest regions, and in the northern port city of Tripoli said they had to turn away many injured because they were ill-equipped to treat severe burns.
– ‘Don’t leave us!’ –
“The corpses are so charred that we can’t identify them,” employee Yassine Metlej at an Akkar hospital told AFP.
A security source said that DNA testing to identify victims had begun.
AFP correspondents at several hospitals saw remains covered in white shrouds.
At Tripoli’s Al-Salam hospital, emergency rooms quickly filled.
“Don’t leave us!” cried one mother beside her burned son as a man wept and prayed for his own son to be saved.
Akkar residents torched an empty house thought to belong to the owner of the land where the explosion took place, the NNA reported.
An army tweet said the owner of the land was later arrested.
Health Minister Hamad Hassan said he was in contact with countries including Turkey, Kuwait and Jordan to evacuate serious cases abroad.
Ismail al-Sheikh, 23, burned on his arms and legs, was driven by his sister Marwa to Beirut’s Geitawi hospital, some 80 kilometres (50 miles) away.
“We were informed that the army was distributing gasoline… so people flocked to fill it in plastic containers,” Marwa told AFP.
She said some witnesses said a lighter sparked the blast; others claimed shots were fired.
The explosion was widely seen as a direct consequence of official negligence that had pushed the country deeper into free fall.
“The dead are victims of a careless state,” Marwa told AFP.
– Political wrangling –
Sawsan Abdullah burst into tears at Geitawi hospital when a doctor told her that her soldier son was in critical condition.
“He’s my only son!” Abdullah yelled, falling to the floor.
Lebanon, hit by a financial crisis, has been grappling with soaring poverty, a plummeting currency and dire fuel shortages.
The central bank this week said it could not afford to fund fuel subsidies because of dwindling foreign reserves, and accused importers of hoarding fuel to sell at higher prices on the black market or in Syria.
Fuel shortages have left many with just two hours of electricity a day.
The American University of Beirut Medical Centre, Lebanon’s top private hospital, had said it would close by Monday morning if it did not secure diesel to power generators, risking hundreds of lives.
President Michel Aoun ordered a probe into the blast and chaired an emergency defence council meeting, his office said.
It agreed to provide hospitals with the diesel to power generators, said a statement.
The council also called on the government to task security forces with monitoring the storage and distribution of fuel to prevent further incidents.
Sunday’s blast comes less than two weeks after Lebanon marked the first anniversary of the Beirut port explosion.
Despite the economic crisis, political wrangling has delayed the formation of a new government after the last cabinet resigned in the wake of that blast.
Vital international aid pledges remain contingent on a new government being formed to spearhead reforms, and on talks restarting with the International Monetary Fund.
Russia called for a “thorough investigation” into Sunday’s blast and Jordan urged a “comprehensive plan” for Lebanon.
A total of 74 million vaccine doses have been administered in France, according to the World Health Organization, and over 55 percent of the eligible population have received both vaccine doses.
It has also enforced a Covid pass for routine aspects of life.
Anger at President Emmanuel Macron’s controversial plan to squeeze infections and encourage vaccinations has seen large protests recently, though polls have shown that a clear majority of French back the Covid pass, even including the extension this week to cafes and restaurants.
As thousands of Lebanese stood solemnly facing Beirut port on Wednesday to honour lost relatives and friends, their minute of silence was soon followed by wailing sirens and revolutionary slogans.
Even as candles were being lit and the names of those killed by last year’s monster blast read out, protesters a few hundred yards (metres) away tried to force a barrier leading to parliament.
Marches, concerts, prayers, protests, flags, vigils and statues: the cacophony that gripped central Beirut reflected how torn many were on the anniversary of Lebanon’s worst peacetime tragedy.
While some remained haunted by the unfathomable loss and destruction that the August 4 port explosion wreaked last year, others saw their revolutionary fervour reignited.
The chants of “thawra, thawra” (revolution, revolution) had not been shared by such a large crowd on the streets in months despite Lebanon’s spectacular financial and social collapse.
The sun setting on the Mediterranean, a bright red shipwreck and the gutted grain silos whose gloomy silhouette has become an emblem of the wounded city provided a striking background for the official ceremony.
Victims’ families sat on neat white plastic chairs, cradling pictures of their slain relatives, as Lebanon’s Maronite patriarch conducted a mass shortly after 18:07 — the exact time at which the explosion ripped through the city.
Sari Majdalani was busy in the kitchen of a nearby restaurant when disaster struck at that time last year. He escaped unharmed and has found a new job as a cook but morale is low.
“I try to lie to myself and pretend that everything will be alright. But right now, I don’t believe there’s any hope,” the young man said.
A far cry from the state funeral mood that cloaked the blast site and its surroundings, scenes reminiscent of an October 2019 protest movement that had kindled nationwide hope were playing out.
Bare-chested young men tried to scale a razor-wire-topped barrier blocking access to parliament, for many the seat of blame for the blast and the rest of the country’s woes.
Baton-wielding security forces responded to stone-throwing with tear gas and pushed back dozens of protesters even as the Maronite patriarch, wearing his tall white mitre, continued his homily.
Praying and rioting
Meanwhile, hundreds gathered on Martyrs’ Square, which is located between the two sites and was the central hub for weeks of protests that rattled Lebanon’s reviled leadership nearly two years ago.
For many Lebanese, almost as traumatising as the deadly explosion itself has been the lack of justice that followed and the political elite’s attempts to dodge it.
Several victims’ organisations had warned that their anger had only grown more intense over the past year and signalled the anniversary should send a clear message they would not let the blast go unpunished.
As the praying and rioting continued into dusk, it was hard to tell which current would win the day, leaving those in the middle wondering where to go.
But for Nour, a 19-year-old high school girl, the only way is to abandon Lebanon.
“There is no hope in sight. I don’t want to leave this country but if nothing changes, I will leave when I finish my studies.”
Lebanon’s new prime minister-designate Najib Mikati Tuesday held consultations with political parties that he said “unanimously” agreed on the need to put together a government quickly to rescue the crisis-hit country.
But after nearly a year of extreme drift, an economic crisis described by the World Bank as one of the world’s worst since the 1850s and continued squabbling among political players, he faces an uphill battle.
Mikati, a billionaire who has already twice served as prime minister, took on the task on Monday, days after fellow veteran politician Saad Hariri threw in the towel.
The last government resigned amid public outrage over a deadly explosion of hundreds of tonnes of poorly stored fertiliser at Beirut port last August.
The institutional vacuum is holding up a potential financial rescue plan for the country, which defaulted on its debt last year.
On Tuesday, Mikati met with top political parties, including the powerful Shiite Hezbollah movement and the Free Patriotic Movement founded by President Michel Aoun.
“There was unanimous agreement from all blocs and lawmakers on the need to speed up the process of cabinet formation,” Mikati said after consultations ended.
The meetings are the customary official step that follows a new prime minister’s designation, but the high-stakes horse-trading has yet to even begin.
– Scepticism – Following a meeting with Mikati, Hezbollah lawmaker Mohammad Raad said his party is ready to “cooperate seriously” with the new PM designate.
FPM chief Gebran Bassil, accused by critics of repeatedly obstructing previous efforts to form a new government, said his party would stand aside this time.
We will “not to participate in the next cabinet, which means we will not get involved in the formation process”.
In an interview with the An-Nahar newspaper, Mikati vowed his lineup would be “purely technical” and tasked with bridging the gap to elections due next year.
Several lawmakers, including deputy speaker Elie Ferzli, backed this push on Tuesday.
“The government will consist of specialists,” Ferzli said. “As for the nominating process, it will rest on Mikati and his agreements with the president.”
The designation of 65-year-old Mikati, Lebanon’s richest man and to many a symbol of its corrupt oligarchy, was met with general scepticism.
A native of Tripoli, Lebanon’s second city and one of its poorest, he was accused by a state prosecutor in 2019 of illicit enrichment, a charge he denies.
“How can I trust a thief who stole from me and my children and their future?” asked 57-year-old Beirut resident Mohammed Deeb, after Mikati’s designation.
“As long as this (political) class is still in power, nothing will change.”
On Sunday evening, dozens of protesters gathered outside Mikati’s Beirut home, accusing him of corruption and cronyism.
– Most aid blocked – Lebanon’s former colonial ruler France and other Western governments stopped short of welcoming Mikati’s designation and simply urged him to swiftly deliver a competent lineup.
But Lebanon’s bickering politicians view Mikati as a consensus candidate, who may be capable of easing the near-year-long political deadlock.
Mikati, the third politician in a year to attempt the job, promised his government would work on implementing a French roadmap conditioning a huge aid package on reform and transparency.
In some of his first comments after his designation, Mikati said he would prioritise what little international aid is currently available towards addressing severe power blackouts, according to the Al-Akhbar newspaper.
Lebanon can no longer provide mains electricity to its citizens for more than a handful of hours each day, nor can it afford to buy the fuel needed to power generators.
Almost none of the international community’s demands for a broad programme of reforms have so far been met.
Further stalling the bankrupt state’s recapitalisation has been the government’s failure to engage the International Monetary Fund and discuss a fully-fledged rescue plan.
Until then, the monetary institution is due to send around $900 million, but experts warn it will not be enough and risks being misused.
Nearly twenty people were wounded in overnight scuffles in northern Lebanon between security forces and protesters angered by a spiralling economic crisis, a medical association said on Sunday.
The protests in the city of Tripoli came as the Lebanese pound plumbed fresh lows on the black market due to a financial crisis that the World Bank says is likely to rank among the world’s worst since the mid-19th century.
Calm returned to the city on Sunday after protesters tried to storm official buildings, including a branch of the central bank, overnight, forcing the army to deploy.
“18 people, both civilians and soldiers, were injured, including four who were hospitalised,” said the Emergency and Relief Corps, a local medical charity that dispatched ambulances to treat the wounded.
Rubber bullets and shrapnel from stun grenades accounted for some of the injuries, a spokesperson for the charity told AFP.
Lebanon’s military needs aid to help its soldiers survive the financial crisis, an army source warned Wednesday, ahead of a UN-backed donor conference to shore up one of the bankrupt country’s key institutions.
Unlike previous conferences designed to provide training, weapons or equipment for Lebanon’s armed forces, the virtual meeting hosted by France on Thursday aims to offer the kind of humanitarian assistance usually reserved for countries grappling with conflict or natural disaster.
“We are in need of food parcels, healthcare assistance” and other support that comes on top of soldiers’ pay, a military source told AFP on condition of anonymity.
“The devaluation of the Lebanese pound is affecting soldiers and they are in need of support. Their salaries are not enough anymore.”
Lebanon’s economic crisis, which the World Bank has labelled as one of the world’s worst since the 1850s, has seen the local currency lose more than 90 percent of its value on the black market.
The crisis has eaten away at the value of soldiers’ salaries and slashed the military’s budget for maintenance and equipment, further threatening the country’s stability.
A regular soldier earns around 1.2 million Lebanese pounds a month — $800 at the official exchange rate, but only about $80 on the black market.
Already towards the middle of last year, the army said it had scrapped meat from the meals offered to on-duty soldiers, due to rising food prices.
– Milk, flour, medicine – “We are doing the impossible to ease the suffering and the economic woes of our soldiers,” army chief Joseph Aoun said in a speech on Tuesday.
“We are forced to turn to allied states to secure aid, and I am ready to go to the end of the world to procure assistance so that the army can stay on its feet.”
Around 20 countries, including the United States, several EU member states, Gulf countries, Russia, and China have been invited to take part in the conference alongside UN representatives.
It follows a visit by Aoun last month to Paris, where he warned that the army could face even darker days without emergency support.
“The Lebanese army is going through a major crisis, which could get worse due to the deteriorating economic and social situation in Lebanon, which may worsen when subsidies are lifted,” he said.
He was referring to a government plan to scrap subsidies on essential goods such as fuel, food and flour to shore up dwindling foreign currency reserves.
A source close to French Defence Minister Florence Parly said Wednesday that the crisis was alarming as the Lebanese military is the “key institution” maintaining security in the country.
The army has highlighted “very specific needs” for milk, flour, medicine, fuel, and spare parts for maintenance, the source said.
– ‘Morale is low’ – Aram Nerguizian, an expert on the Lebanese army at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the Carnegie Middle East Center, said the military had already lost more than 3,000 members since 2019, dropping to a force of 80,874 at the start of this year.
“Morale is low, officers are increasingly demoralised,” he told AFP.
Nerguizian said donors could provide “in-kind assistance that helps LAF (army) personnel gain access to staple goods they would otherwise spend their now-severely diminished salaries on,” such as food, fuel, and medicine.
But aid that supports salaries is “more difficult”.
“For most of the LAF’s Western partners, there are laws and mechanisms in place specifically not to have aid used in that way,” Nerguizian said.
“Those systems are in place to prevent corruption, nepotism, and a twisted form of dependence on foreign aid for the current portion of national defence spending.”
The United States remains the biggest financial backer of the Lebanese military, and has bumped up funding for the army by $15 million for this year to $120 million.
France, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Turkey are among the army’s main food donors, while Iraq and Spain have offered medical assistance.
Lebanese authorities on Friday announced a three-day lockdown over the Catholic Easter weekend in April to try to avoid another surge in coronavirus cases.
The country of over six million people has officially recorded more than 455,000 coronavirus cases and over 6,000 deaths.
Authorities announced a 24-hour curfew from April 3 until the morning of April 6 to cover the Catholic Easter holiday weekend.
The government’s coronavirus taskforce warned against “gatherings at home and in closed places… during the upcoming holidays”.
Orthodox Christians will celebrate Easter in early May, while Muslims will celebrate Eid al-Fitr, the holiday marking the end of the holy fasting month of Ramadan, in the middle of that month.
Coronavirus cases skyrocketed in Lebanon in January after authorities loosened restrictions during the end-of-year holiday season, allowing restaurants and nightclubs to remain open until 3:00 am, despite warnings from health professionals.
Hospitals were overwhelmed and authorities imposed drastic restrictions to stem the surge.
“Faced with an expected third wave of the pandemic… it is imperative to bolster hospital capacity, particularly in intensive care units,” President Michel Aoun said Friday.
Outgoing prime minister Hassan Diab said a new wave of infections “could be more dangerous than those that came before it”.
“Our concerns relate to being able to secure oxygen, electricity, medication and medical equipment during the serious financial crisis the country is facing,” he said.
Lebanon’s coronavirus outbreak has compounded its worst economic crisis since the 1975-1990 civil war.
A local currency plunge has made medical imports, including oxygen, more expensive, leading to limited supplies.
The Syrian government Wednesday said it would supply 75 tonnes of oxygen to Lebanon in response to a request for Covid-19 assistance.