One year later, political interference threatens investigation into Beirut explosion

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Beirut (AFP)

Since a monster explosion disfigured Beirut, a local investigation has yet to result in major arrests or even identify a culprit, with politicians widely accused of slowing progress.

The explosion of August 4, 2020 in the port of Beirut left more than 200 dead and destroyed entire sections of the capital.

It devastated its berth, where the first fire broke out, and was felt as far as Cyprus.

Authorities said 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate fertilizer randomly stored in a warehouse at the port since 2014 caught fire, causing one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history.

Political leaders have repeatedly refused an international investigation, although France has launched its own investigation into the deaths of some French citizens in the explosion.

The national investigation has not yet determined what triggered the explosion, where the chemicals came from or why they were left unattended for six years.

In a country where even high-profile assassinations and bombings go unpunished, many fear that a Lebanese-led blast probe could also hold anyone to account.

Officials in the country’s government, parliament and major security agencies have so far dodged questioning by referring to so-called “immunity” clauses in the constitution.

“They are just trying to escape justice,” said lawyer Youssef Lahoud, who represents hundreds of victims of explosions.

Despite such obstacles, Tarek Bitar, the judge in charge of the investigation, completed more than 75% of the case, said a judicial source close to the investigation.

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“He has almost a full picture of what happened,” the source said, adding that Bitar hoped to release his findings by the end of the year.

The investigator has so far identified who is responsible for shipping the ammonium nitrate to Beirut and who decided to unload and store it at the port, according to Lahoud.

“But there are key questions that we still don’t have answers to, including, what triggered the explosion and are there any hidden links to who brought the shipment to Lebanon? ”

– Cargo –

It is widely believed that ammonium nitrate arrived in Beirut in 2013 aboard the Rhosus, a Moldovan-flagged vessel sailing from Georgia to Mozambique.

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The vessel was seized by authorities after a company took legal action against its owner over a debt dispute.

In 2014, the port authorities unloaded the cargo and stored it in an abandoned warehouse with cracked walls.

A Mozambican factory – Fabrica de Explosivos de Mocambique – confirmed that it ordered and never received the ammonium nitrate.

Bitar identified key protagonists such as the owner of the company that shipped the ammonium nitrate and a bank in Mozambique that funded the shipment, Lahoud said.

“But the investigation is not yet complete if there are other parties” behind the shipment, Lahoud added.

The head of Savaro Ltd – a middleman that allegedly bought the ammonium nitrate in 2013 – refused to disclose the identity of the true owners, he said.

The investigation is also examining reports that three Syrian businessmen holding Russian nationality were involved in the purchase of the chemicals.

– The cause –

According to Lahoud, the “weak point” of the investigation is that it has yet to determine what triggered the explosion.

He said the investigation “has so far confirmed that ammonium nitrate has been stored near explosives.”

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Security sources initially suggested welding work could have started the blaze, but experts have since dismissed the theory as improbable and an attempt to blame the high-level failures.

Bitar is planning a simulation to focus on the origin of the fire.

In recent months, it has issued requests for assistance from more than 10 countries requesting satellite imagery.

According to the judicial source, only France responded, claiming that it did not have a satellite trained on Lebanon at the time of the explosion.

Without satellite images, “it is difficult for investigators to determine whether ammonium nitrate has been smuggled from the port warehouse,” Lahoud said.

Some experts believe the amount of ammonium nitrate that exploded last year was significantly less than 2,750 tonnes, leading many to believe that large amounts were stolen before the incident.

Lahoud did not rule out an attack, but French and American experts attending the probe played down the scenario of a missile attack after testing water and soil samples at the site of the explosion.

– Obstruction –

Port authorities, security officials and political leaders, including then-Prime Minister Hassan Diab and President Michel Aoun, knew the chemicals were stored in the port.

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In a report seen by AFP, the state security agency – citing a chemistry expert – warned that ammonium nitrate would cause a huge explosion that could level the port.

After the explosion, the state security agency confirmed that it alerted the authorities.

Fadi Sawan, the first judge to investigate the blast, brought negligence charges against Diab and three former ministers in December. He was taken out for his troubles.

Bitar picked up where Sawan left off by summoning Diab and demanding that parliament lift the immunity of former finance minister Ali Hasan Khalil, former public works minister Ghazi Zaiter and former minister of the Interior Nohad Machnouk.

Bitar also requested permission to investigate the head of state security, Tony Saliba, and the head of the general security agency, Abbas Ibrahim.

He also lodged a complaint against several former high-ranking military officials, including former army chief Jean Kahwaji.

Documents and testimony suggest they were “all aware of the shipment of ammonium nitrate and its dangers,” the forensic source said.

But the country’s vilified political class has closed ranks to block the investigation.

“Whenever the lead investigator tries to summon or investigate one of them, he turns to immunity for cover,” Karlen Hitti Karam told AFP.

The young woman’s husband, brother and cousin were among the firefighters killed in the explosion.

“It is as if Lebanon is Ali Baba’s cave, and not a real state,” she said.


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