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Beirut explosion: death toll rises to 137 as army takes control of site

The Guardian logo The Guardian 06/08/2020 Michael Safi

a construction site: Part of the destroyed port as rescue work continues. Photograph: Wael Hamzeh/EPA © Provided by The Guardian Part of the destroyed port as rescue work continues. Photograph: Wael Hamzeh/EPA The death toll from a massive blast at Beirut’s port has risen again to 137, as the Lebanese army took control of the site on the first day of a two-week state of emergency.

The new casualty figures on Thursday morning include at least 5,000 injured and a health ministry spokesman said dozens were still missing. “This toll is not final,” he said.

As volunteers worked with the army to clean up shattered streets, buildings and hospitals, the government said it had formed an investigation committee to look into the explosion, which appears to have been set off by 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate that had been stored at the port since 2014.

Lebanese army soldiers stand guard in front of destroyed ships at the scene where an explosion hit on Tuesday the seaport of Beirut, Lebanon, Thursday, Aug. 6, 2020. Lebanese army bulldozers plowed through wreckage to reopen roads around Beirut's demolished port on Thursday as the government pledged to investigate the devastating explosion and placed port officials under house arrest. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla) © ASSOCIATED PRESS Lebanese army soldiers stand guard in front of destroyed ships at the scene where an explosion hit on Tuesday the seaport of Beirut, Lebanon, Thursday, Aug. 6, 2020. Lebanese army bulldozers plowed through wreckage to reopen roads around Beirut's demolished port on Thursday as the government pledged to investigate the devastating explosion and placed port officials under house arrest. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

Lebanese officials have started blaming each other for leaving the highly explosive substance sitting so close to residential neighbourhoods for six years. The ammonium nitrate was taken from a ship that docked in Beirut in 2013 and was apparently abandoned by its Russian owner and mostly Ukrainian crew.

Badri Daher, the director general of Lebanese customs, said on Wednesday his office had sent six letters to the country’s judiciary urging them to deal with the chemicals either by exporting the load, reselling it or giving it to the army.

An unspecified number of port officials have been ordered to be placed under house arrest pending the investigation, which is scheduled to take five days. It will report to the national cabinet, which will refer its findings to the judiciary.

People stand inside a damaged building near the site of an explosion on Tuesday that hit the seaport of Beirut, Lebanon, Thursday, Aug. 6, 2020. The blast which appeared to have been caused by an accidental fire that ignited a stockpile of ammonium nitrate at the port, rippled across the Lebanese capital, killing at least 135 people, injuring more than 5,000 and causing widespread destruction. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein) © ASSOCIATED PRESS People stand inside a damaged building near the site of an explosion on Tuesday that hit the seaport of Beirut, Lebanon, Thursday, Aug. 6, 2020. The blast which appeared to have been caused by an accidental fire that ignited a stockpile of ammonium nitrate at the port, rippled across the Lebanese capital, killing at least 135 people, injuring more than 5,000 and causing widespread destruction. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)

Amnesty International was among the organisations calling for an independent investigation into the circumstances leading up to the explosion.

“Whatever may have caused the explosion, including the possibility of a large amount of ammonium nitrate stored unsafely, Amnesty is calling for an international mechanism to be promptly set up to investigate how this happened,” said Julie Verhaar, the group’s acting secretary general.

Protests have been planned for central Beirut on Thursday afternoon as residents of the capital seethed at a disaster that appears to have been foreseeable and frequently warned about.

06 August 2020, Lebanon, Beirut: A general view of the destroyed port after a massive explosion rocked Beirut, killing at least 100 people and injured thousands. Photo: Marwan Naamani/dpa (Photo by Marwan Naamani/picture alliance via Getty Images) © Copyright 2020, dpa (www.dpa.de). Alle Rechte vorbehalten 06 August 2020, Lebanon, Beirut: A general view of the destroyed port after a massive explosion rocked Beirut, killing at least 100 people and injured thousands. Photo: Marwan Naamani/dpa (Photo by Marwan Naamani/picture alliance via Getty Images)

One one shattered balcony, someone hung a thin noose along with the sign, “Whose heads will be hung?” Lebanese social media was trending with the hashtag “Hang up the nooses”, as rage threatened to boil over in the grief-stricken city.

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More on this story:

Army takes control of Beirut blast site (The Guardian)

Devastation amid 'collapsing' system (The Financial Times)

Before and after the city was ruined (Mirror)

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The French president, Emmanuel Macron, arrived in Beirut on Thursday morning, the first world leader to visit in the wake of the disaster. His office said he would head straight to the blast site. He is expected to call for international aid to rebuild Beirut but also press for changes to the political system – a major hurdle to receiving billions of dollars of aid to alleviate one of the worst financial crises in modern Lebanese history.

“For the president, it’s a matter of showing that France is there – that is its role – and that he believes in Lebanon,” the presidential palace said. “The visit is also an opportunity to lay down the foundations for a pact for the reconstruction of Lebanon, binding for all, that will limit conflicts, offer immediate aid and open up a long-term perspective.”

A combination of satellite images shows the area, which was heavily damaged by a massive explosion and a blast wave, on August 5, 2020 and the same area on November 4, 2019 in Beirut, Lebanon. Russian space agency Roscosmos/Handout via REUTERS  ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. MANDATORY CREDIT. PICTURE WATERMARKED AT SOURCE. © Thomson Reuters A combination of satellite images shows the area, which was heavily damaged by a massive explosion and a blast wave, on August 5, 2020 and the same area on November 4, 2019 in Beirut, Lebanon. Russian space agency Roscosmos/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. MANDATORY CREDIT. PICTURE WATERMARKED AT SOURCE.

French aircraft were among several including from Turkey, Germany, Gulf countries and the World Food Programme to land in Beirut since Tuesday, bringing rescuers, medical supplies and equipment.

Tuesday’s explosion echoed another blast 15 years ago in which the former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri was killed by a car bomb not far from the port. An international court trying four men accused of Hariri’s assassination and killing 21 others with him was supposed to give its long-awaited verdict on Friday.

But the court outside The Hague said it was delaying the announcement “out of respect for the countless victims of the devastating explosion that shook Beirut on 4 August, and the three days of public mourning in Lebanon,” its registry said in a statement.

Microsoft News is supporting the the emergency efforts in Beirut. The devastation to the city and lives shattered during the explosion cannot be understated and every penny donated to the British Red Cross will make it to the heart of the response. Find out more and donate here.


Video: "Port officials under house arrest after explosion in Lebanon's capital" (Evening Standard)

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