A week after blast, Beirut pauses to remember the dead
BEIRUT (AP) — The shattered city of Beirut on Tuesday marked a week since the catastrophic explosion that killed at least 171 people, injured thousands and plunged Lebanon into a deeper political crisis.
Thousands of people marched near the devastated port, remembering those who died in the most destructive single blast to hit the country.
They observed a minute of silence at 6:08 p.m. local time, the moment on Aug. 4 that thousands of tons of ammonium nitrate exploded in the city’s port where it had been stored for more than six years, apparently with the knowledge of top political and security officials.
At that moment Tuesday, church bells tolled and mosque loudspeakers recited a call to prayer.
Hundreds marched through the streets of the hard-hit neighborhood of Gemayze carrying portraits of the dead before a candlelight vigil after dusk near the port.
“He knew,” read a poster bearing President Michel Aoun’s picture.
Aoun, in office since 2016, said Friday he was first told of the dangerous stockpile nearly three weeks ago and immediately ordered military and security agencies to do “what was needed.” But he suggested his responsibility ended there, saying he had no authority over the port.
“I’m very furious, I’m enraged, I’m angry, I’m sad. I’m hopeless,” said Anthony Semaan, in his 20s, who said he came to pay respects to the victims.
Like others, he said the government’s resignation makes no difference.
“First of all, there are questions that need to be answered. And second, there are other rats that need to be brought down first, and when they are brought down then maybe we can start thinking about the future,” he added.
Young people carried placards, each one printed with the names of one dead in a red and a green cedar, Lebanon’s national symbol, and sat on stairs in the Gemayze district, facing the port. Elsewhere in the city, burials of the dead continued.
The explosion has fueled outrage against top political leaders and security agencies, and led to the resignation of the government on Monday. In the wake of the disaster, documents have come to light that show that top Lebanese officials knew about the existence of the stockpile in the heart of Beirut near residential areas, and did nothing about it.
Aoun pledged “to all Lebanese who are in pain that I will not be silent and will not rest until the facts are revealed.” He tweeted that referring the case to the Supreme Judicial Council is only the first step.
It still wasn’t clear what caused the fire in a port warehouse that triggered the explosion of the chemicals, which created a shock wave so powerful it was felt as far away as the island of Cyprus, more than 200 kilometers (180 miles) across the Mediterranean.
“From one minute to the next, the world changed for people in Beirut,” said Basma Tabaja, deputy head of the International Committee of the Red Cross’s delegation in Lebanon.
Outgoing Health Minister Hamad Hassan said the blast killed at least 171 people, with between 30 and 40 still missing. Of the injured, 1,500 needed special treatment while 120 remain in intensive care, he said.
The explosion damaged thousands of apartments and offices in the capital and came amid an unprecedented economic and financial crisis facing the country since late last year.
U.N. food agency head David Beasley, who said a day earlier he is “very, very concerned” Lebanon could run out of bread in about two and a half weeks, told The Associated Press that the World Food Program was looking at all options to make certain there is no interruptions in the food supply.
“We’re looking at the port of Tripoli. We’re looking at all other options, trucking food in, as well as shipping food in, flying food in, whatever it takes,” Beasley said. “Obviously, we want to get the port operating as quickly as possible because that’s the cheapest way to feed the most people.”
Meanwhile, efforts to form a new government got underway a day after Prime Minister Hassan Diab resigned. His government, which was supported by the militant group Hezbollah and its allies, unraveled after the deadly blast, with three ministers announcing they were quitting.
His government was formed after his predecessor, Saad Hariri, stepped down in October in response to anti-government demonstrations over endemic corruption. It took months of bickering among the leadership factions before they settled on Diab.
Lebanese have demanded an independent Cabinet not backed by any of the political political parties they blame for the mess they are in. Many are also calling for an independent investigation into the port explosion, saying they had zero trust in a local probe.
Lebanese officials have rejected an international investigation. The government, in the last decision it made before resigning, referred the case to the Supreme Judicial Council, Lebanon’s top judicial body, which handles crimes infringing on national security as well as political and state security crimes.
The state-run National News Agency said that after the case was referred to the Supreme Judicial Council, state prosecutor Ghassan Oueidat will continue his work as a general judicial prosecutor. NNA said that the investigation will continue by the military police and state prosecution and charges will be later filed to the judicial investigator who is to be named by the outgoing minister of justice.
The ammonium nitrate, a chemical used in fertilizers and explosives, originated from a cargo ship called MV Rhosus that had been traveling from the country of Georgia to Mozambique in 2013. It made an unscheduled detour to Beirut as the Russian shipowner was struggling with debts and hoped to earn some extra cash in Lebanon. Unable to pay port fees and reportedly leaking, the ship was impounded.
Associated Press writers Bassem Mroue, Nadine Achoui-Lesage and Sarah El Deeb contributed.