Beirut blast: Death toll hits 135 and port officials under house arrest as anger mounts

6 August 2020, 10:00

By Ewan Somerville

Anger is brewing in Beirut as residents accuse the city’s authorities of corruption and negligence following a huge explosion that killed at least 135 people.

The Lebanese capital is reeling from Tuesday’s port blast, which President Michel Aoun said was caused by 2,750 tonnes of explosive ammonium nitrate being hazardly stored in a warehouse for seven years. 

Some 4,000 people were injured when the explosion tore through the city’s downtown, destroying its port and decimating countless buildings miles inland. Dozens of others are still missing

President Aoun has declared a two-week state of emergency, with the country already engulfed in the twin crises of coronavirus and economic strife, before its mostly privately-run hospitals saw an influx of blast casualties. 

Now the anguish and shock is bubbling into anger, with residents accusing Lebanese authorities of corruption, neglect and mismanagement. 

The city's devastation is bubbling into anger
The city's devastation is bubbling into anger. Picture: AP

“This explosion seals the collapse of Lebanon. I really blame the ruling class,” Hassan Zaiter, 32, a manager at the heavily damaged Le Gray Hotel in Beirut, told the Reuters news agency. 

Chadia Elmeouchi Noun, a Beirut resident currently in hospital, told the BBC: "I've known all the time that we are led by incompetent people, incompetent government [...] But I tell you something - what they have done now is absolutely criminal."

An official source familiar with preliminary investigations, quoted by Reuters, blamed the incident on “inaction and negligence”, saying “nothing was done” by committees and judges involved in the matter to order the removal of hazardous material.

READ MORE: Shocking satellite images show Beirut ravaged by blast

READ MORE: Beirut explosion as it happened

The city is reeling from the tragedy
The city is reeling from the tragedy. Picture: AP
Rescue efforts are underway in Beirut
Rescue efforts are underway in Beirut. Picture: Getty

On Wednesday, the government announced that a number of Beirut port officials were placed under house arrest pending an investigation into the explosion.

It would include all port officials "who have handled the affairs of storing [the] ammonium nitrate, guarding it and handling its paperwork" since June 2014, according to Information Minister Manal Abdel Samad.The country's Supreme Defence Council insisted that those found responsible would face the "maximum punishment".

But observers are calling for international actors to intervene. Human Rights Watch said it had "serious concerns about the ability of the Lebanese judiciary to conduct a credible and transparent investigation on its own".

READ MORE: UK to send 5 million aid package to Beirut

READ MORE: Man pulled from rubble after 10 hours missing

Multiple countries are sending aid to Lebanon after the blast
Multiple countries are sending aid to Lebanon after the blast. Picture: AP
Much of the city's downtown is destroyed
Much of the city's downtown is destroyed. Picture: AP

The explosion, heard 150 miles away in Cyprus, was estimated by experts at the University of Sheffield to measure a tenth of Hiroshima, the most devastating blast in history. They believe it measured between 1,000 and 1,500 TNT. 

Authorities have blamed it on a huge shipment of ammonium nitrate, a highly explosive fertiliser, thought to have been stored at the port since a ship ran into difficulty in 2013. 

Port General Manager Hassan Koraytem told OTV they had been aware that the material was dangerous when a court first ordered it stored in the warehouse, "but not to this degree".

READ MORE: Beirut blast leaves 300,000 homeless as costs run into billions

The rescue operation is in full swing, with the death toll expected to continue rising. The EU, Russia, Tunisia, Turkey, Iran and Qatar are all sending relief supplies. The UK is to send a £5 million aid package.

Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said: "This was a devastating explosion which has caused enormous suffering and damage.

"The UK is a long-standing friend of Lebanon and the Lebanese people, and will stand with them in their hour of need. We have offered immediate direct support including search and rescue, emergency medical assistance and up to £5m in humanitarian aid."

France has dispatched three planes carrying 55 rescuers, medical equipment and a mobile clinic equipped to treat 500 people, ahead of President Emmanuel Macron’s visit to the country, a former French colony, on Thursday. 

Britons were caught up in the blast and some embassy staff were injured.