beirut blast
September 26, 2020

Mustapha Adib, Lebanon's prime minister-designate, resigned Saturday after he was unable to form a non-partisan cabinet in the aftermath of the Beirut port explosion in August that killed around 200 people and left thousands homeless, prompting the last cabinet to step down amid accusations of corruption and neglect.

Even before the blast, Lebanon was struggling with ongoing political and economic crises. Adib, who was designated prime minister at the end of August, was reportedly trying to move away from Lebanon's sectarian-based system of government and "create a government of experts" to address the crises, but his efforts reportedly ran into trouble when two of Lebanon's dominant Shia parties, Hezbollah and the Amal Movement, insisted "they wanted the finance minister portfolio."

Adib's resignation also hinders French President Emmanuel Macron's controversial efforts to break Lebanon's political stalemate. Macron's initiative gave the country's political parties 15 days to nominate a cabinet of independent experts, The Financial Times reports, and afterward, France would convene an international pledging conference in October. Paris' attempt to intervene in Lebanon was not well received by everyone, given that France ruled the country for around two decades after the Ottoman Empire fell, but Macron's plan does have support within Beirut's political system, and leading Sunni Muslim politician Saad al-Hariri said Saturday that "those who applaud" the initiative's collapse "will bite your fingers in regret." Read more at Al Jazeera and The Financial Times. Tim O'Donnell

September 9, 2020

A new investigation by The New York Times has shed more light on the corruption in Beirut that set the stage for the fatal blast last month that killed nearly 200 people.

There have been numerous reports about how officials ignored warnings regarding the 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate stored in a port hangar for years. But the Times reveals that even the Russian businessman who chartered the ship that originally carried the explosive material in 2013 sent a cautionary email about the cargo, and a law firm seeking to repatriate the ship's crew to Russia and Ukraine flagged an ominous Wikipedia entry for the port's general manager.

But the "entrenched culture culture of corruption at the port," where Lebanon's competing political factions all have a stake proved too powerful to overcome. Multiple port employees, customs officials, and shipping agents told the Times that little moves into the port without bribes being paid to multiple parties, including customs inspectors, port security, and even the Ministry of Social Affairs, which Lebanon's politically connected class reportedly bribes to allow explicitly fraudulent claims. For example, a 3-month old child with Down Syndrome was granted a disability exemption so someone could import a luxury car tax free.

In short, the blast was a symptom of a longstanding problem. Read more at The New York Times. Tim O'Donnell

August 31, 2020

Workers were repairing a facility in Beirut, Lebanon's port on the afternoon of Aug. 4, hours before a massive explosion there rocked the area, destroying buildings and killing at least 180 people. A judge had recently ordered something be done to secure Warehouse Number 12 at the request of Lebanon's State Security agency.

The warehouse contained 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate, and documents obtained by The Washington Post show that the highly explosive material was stored next to kerosene, 25 tons of fireworks, and solvents used for stripping paint. Ghassan Oueidat, Lebanon's chief prosecutor, told the Post the State Security agency was worried not about the dangers posed by the warehouse's contents, but rather someone stealing the materials. A report sent to the offices of Lebanon's president and prime minister in July warned that the ammonium nitrate was "dangerous" and "if it were stolen, the thief could use it to manufacture explosives."

The three workers sent to secure the warehouse fixed a broken door, closed a hole in a wall, and made sure all other doors were locked, the Post reports. But when a fire broke out at around 5:50 p.m. on Aug. 4, the workers had gone home for the day, and Beirut's fire chief said firefighters were unable to gain access to the warehouse or find any port employees who might have had keys. At 6:08 p.m., the warehouse blew up.

Investigators do not yet know what caused the initial fire or explosion that triggered the blast, but theories include welding sparks or arson to cover up a theft, the Post reports. This is just one of the unanswered questions authorities have, some dating back to when the ammonium nitrate arrived on a cargo ship that docked in Beirut in November 2013. They'd primarily like to know who originally owned the ammonium nitrate, where it was headed, and whether it was deliberately diverted to Beirut, where it was seized by authorities in December 2013.

The Post spoke with several people who do not have faith in the government and its ability to properly conduct an investigation. "There's not a chance in hell there will ever be accountability," one person with knowledge of the probe said. "A typical coverup is on the way." Catherine Garcia

August 10, 2020

While the resignation of Lebanon's Prime Minister Hassan Diab and his Cabinet amid protests following a blast in Beirut that killed at least 160 people last week may seem monumental, analysts are skeptical it will have a lasting effect on a country where people have been calling for fundamental change since long before the explosion.

For starters, not everyone considers the resignations as all-encompassing as the appear, since numerous high-ranking authorities including President Michel Auon remain in power.

And just because the politicians who did resign are out of the picture for now, that doesn't mean they will be for long.

Ultimately, analysts say, the change desired by protesters is systemic, and not simply tied to the current government. Indeed, three prime ministers and two presidents have been in power since the explosives that caused the blast were stored in a Beirut port warehouse and neglected for seven years. Tim O'Donnell

August 8, 2020

Anger abounds in Lebanon following Tuesday's massive blast in Beirut's port that killed 154 people and injured 5,000 as it's become increasingly clear that the catastrophe stemmed from governmental neglect and mismanagement of 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate stored in a warehouse for years. The Lebanese people's frustration with the country's political class is not new, however. For months before the explosion, protesters took to the street to demonstrate against corruption in the government and a severe economic crisis in the country. Now, some are looking abroad for help.

One university student, Celine Dibo, told Reuters she wished "the United Nations would take over Lebanon," while psychologist Maryse Hayek said "I hope another country would just take us over." Indeed, more than 60,000 people have signed a petition asking France to restore the mandate it held between 1920 and 1946. But critics have pushed back against the idea.

French President Emmanuel Macron — who himself has dismissed the idea he could "substitute" for Lebanese leaders — has received praise for visiting the country during the aftermath, promising aid, and even bringing the heads of Lebanon's divided political factions into the same room. But the French president has also been criticized for seeking a way to restore French influence over Lebanon and patronizing the politicians, The Associated Press reports, with one university student in Beirut wondering how Macron is "giving advice to us" when he "hasn't resolved issues with his country."

Jack Lang, a former French government official told AP that France's position is difficult — ultimately, he said, France is "walking on the edge of precipice" when it comes to Lebanon, adding that "we have to aid, support, and encourage the Lebanese people, but at the same time not give the impression that we want to establish a new protectorate, which would be completely stupid." Read more at Reuters and The Associated Press. Tim O'Donnell

August 7, 2020

Anti-government protesters took to the streets of Beirut on Thursday night, demanding that top officials resign in the wake of Tuesday's massive explosion in the city, which left at least 145 people dead and 5,000 injured.

Several dozen protesters gathered in downtown Beirut, starting small fires and throwing stones at riot police, who in turn fired tear gas, BBC News reports. The demonstrators say government negligence caused the explosion, and people need to be held accountable.

Government officials have said the explosion, which leveled buildings and blew out windows miles away from the blast site, was caused by 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate that had been stored in unsafe conditions since 2013. Customs and port officials have asserted they asked numerous times for the ammonium nitrate, which is used in fertilizer and explosives, to be exported.

Two government officials have resigned since Wednesday: Marwan Hamade, a member of parliament, and Tracy Chamoun, the ambassador to Jordan. An investigation into the blast is now underway, and Lebanese state media said 16 people have been detained. Catherine Garcia

August 6, 2020

In the aftermath of Tuesday's massive explosion in Beirut, which left at least 145 people dead, dozens missing, and an estimated 300,000 homeless, video showing a woman posing in her wedding gown and then falling to the ground because of the blast went viral.

Her name is Dr. Israa Seblani, and she was taking photos in the Saifi neighborhood, less than a mile from the explosion site. Seblani was joined by the groom, Ahmad Sbeih, who was thrown into the air and landed about six feet away. "One thing came into my mind: Now you are going to die." Seblani told The New York Times on Thursday.

Seblani said there was shattered glass everywhere, as people stumbled around, covered in blood. "It just took a second from hearing the explosion to being hit by it," Seblani said. "The beautiful place that I was in, it turned into a ghost town."

Seblani and Sbeih made their way home, and had to quickly decide whether to go through with their wedding ceremony. They chose to do so, in front of relatives who gathered at their house. "There are families who lost their children, children who lost their parents, so how can we be happy?" Seblani said. "All we can say is thank God for everything."

She is finishing her residency at a Detroit hospital, and has been waiting for years to get Seblani a visa so he can join her in the United States. Lebanon is going through an economic crisis on top of the coronavirus pandemic, and Seblani told the Times she wants to go back to the U.S., but worries about leaving Sbeih in Beirut. "Life in Lebanon is getting complicated, more and more," she said. "But we need to be together. We've been apart for three years, and that's enough." Catherine Garcia

August 5, 2020

The Pentagon is distancing itself from President Trump's claims about the Beirut blast that killed more than 100 people.

Trump on Tuesday said his unnamed "great generals" told him they thought the massive explosion was a "terrible attack." In the early aftermath, there was speculation that the catastrophe was intentional, but it the consensus quickly became that it was almost certainly accidental — albeit brought on by neglect and mismanagement — and not linked to any foreign power, proxy forces, or terrorist organizations. Defense Secretary Mark Esper and other department officials affirmed they believe it was an accident, as well.

The president hasn't repeated his claim from Tuesday, possibly indicating he understands there was no basis for it. But that's what's raised some eyebrows, considering he said he got the information from unnamed high-ranking military officials. A senior Pentagon official, however, told The Associated Press on Wednesday they had "no idea" what Trump was referring to with his comment, leaving some to wonder if it came out of thin air. Tim O'Donnell

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