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Unanswered questions

Aug 04,2021 - Last updated at Aug 04,2021

This week Lebanese have responded with bitter tears, confusion and disbelief to the anniversary of the explosion that devastated Beirut Port, killed 2014 people, wounded 6,500 and rendered 300,000 homeless.

Tears were shed over lost human lives, maimed and traumatised survivors, destruction  of historic neighbourhoods adjoining the port, and feelings of helplessness engendered by the explosion, the largest non-nuclear blast since World War II.  Lebanese who experienced their homeland’s second civil war (1975-90) could not believe anything could be worse.  But many found the unexpected explosion, which happened at a time of politico-economic crisis but civil peace, was more shocking than protracted warfare. 

Lebanese also shed exasperated tears over the failure of their political class to provide an explanation for the blast.  Until last week, most Lebanese believed the explosion was caused by 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate stored unsafely for seven years in a warehouse in the port. 

However, last week confusion was sown when Reuters leaked an October 7, 2020, US Federal  Bureau of Investigation (FBI) report revealing that only one-fifth, 552 tonnes, of the 2,750 tonnes actually exploded.  

Lebanese investigators agreed with the FBI assessment. A Lebanese official gave two expla-

nations for the missing material: Most had been stolen or blown out to sea by the explosion. The latter is far-fetched.  A third possible explanation is that a large proportion of the ammonium nitrate had deteriorated to the point it was not explosive.

The FBI could not identify who might have stolen four-fifths of the shipment. Since Lebanon’s political factions had — and have — agents, officials and workers in the port, none can be ruled out.  Or, the perpetrator or perpetrators might have been port workers who, over time, stole the ammonium nitrate to sell it to farmers as fertiliser or building contractors to makeexplosives to clear land or bring down buildings.  

The Moldovan-flagged rust-bucket freighter carrying the material from Georgia to Mozambique in November 2013 was ordered to pause at Beirut Port to collect machinery bound for Jordan.  The ship never left.  It was detained over failure to pay port fees and concern over the poor state of the vessel. The captain, who was detained on the ship for many months, warned port officials that the deteriorating ammonium nitrate was explosive. It was off-loaded and placed in a derelict warehouse. Neither ship nor cargo was claimed,the ship sank and the ammonium nitrate remained in the warehouse where fireworks and paint were also stored. Welding of the warehouse doors might have caused the fire that ignited the material.

If the FBI is correct about the quantity of ammonium nitrate that exploded, Beirutis have to thank the mysterious thieves who stole four-fifths of it. They saved the lives of the city’s 2.2 million residents and  entire neighbourhoods in the capital from being levelled by the detonation of the entire shipment. 

The ship owners, their clients, Lebanese port officials, and politicians either forgot about or ignored this deadly and destructive cargo.

Lebanese shrugged in disbelief when government ministers, lawmakers and Lebanon’s intelligence officers refused, by claiming constitutional “immunity”, to be questioned by the investigating magistrate, Tariq Bitar, who, reportedly, has completed 75 per cent of his probe and hopes to conclude by year’s end. 

Lebanon had three prime ministers ahead of the explosion: Tammam Salam, Saad Hariri and Hassan Diab who remains in caretaker capacity. Aoun was president from 2016.  All are, at least, guilty of negligence due to indifference although they had been warned about the deadly cargo before the explosion.  

To make matters worse in the public mind for Lebanon’s uncaring politicians, six months after the blast, a German firm treated and shipped to Germany for destruction another 52 containers of hazardous chemicals which had accumulated in the port over decades.

Hariri was designated last October to form a fully-fledged Cabinet of apolitical experts who could initiate reforms and unlock $21 billion in foreign funding to reboot the economy but his efforts were stymied by President Michel Aoun who has insisted on continuing with the discredited sectarian model whereby Christian, Shiite and Sunni factions put forward their own political representatives. He has in recent months settled on the interior, justice and defence ministries for his Maronite Christian Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) as well as a veto on policies. While he may have given up on defence, he wants interior to guarantee the victory ofhis son-in-law and FPM chief Jibran Bassil in next year’s parliamentary election and justice tomake certain he and his family are not targeted by investigations into corruption and mismanagement.    

Newly designated Prime Minister Najib Miqati was optimistic when he accepted the challenge last week. He apparently sought to appoint a neutral, independent person to the interior ministry whatever his sect.  Miqati has, however, found that Aoun has not changed its stand although he has the backing of the FPM’s ally, Hizbollah.  Miqati has made it clear he is not prepared to negotiate with Aoun for months, as did Hariri, before stepping down.  His dparturewould be a disaster.  Lebanon’s social fabric is tearing as its economic decline accelerates.  

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