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Lebanon puts port authorities under house arrest

Smoke rises after a fire at a warehouse with explosives at the Port of Beirut led to massive blasts in Beirut, Lebanon on August 4, 2020 [Houssam Shbaro/Anadolu Agency]
Smoke rises after a fire at a warehouse with explosives at the Port of Beirut led to massive blasts in Beirut, Lebanon on 4 August 2020 [Houssam Shbaro/Anadolu Agency]

Lebanon's government has ordered some Beirut port officials be put under house arrest pending an investigation into the explosions which rocked the city on Tuesday.

According to a report by the Financial Times, the government has requested the military place an unspecified number of officials involved in the storage of chemicals in Beirut's port under house arrest.

The two explosions which took place on Tuesday at 6pm local time, have killed at least 137 so far, injuring thousands more with over a hundred still missing.

The blasts were caused by 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate which had been stored unsafely in Beirut's port for six years, according to President Michel Aoun.

The explosive substance was deposited in Beirut during an unplanned stop by a Moldavan-flagged cargo ship, MV Rhosus, in 2013, according to legal documents and Lebanese officials cited by the Washington Post.

READ: Lebanese search for missing online, open homes to needy after massive blast

The ship was barred from leaving Beirut after port authorities found "technical problems" with the vessel and deemed it unseaworthy.

The ammonium nitrate was later offloaded from the vessel because of concerns over the explosive nature of the substance and the risk of storing it onboard the ship.

The ship and the ammonium nitrate remained in Beirut's port "awaiting auctioning and/or proper disposal", according to documents, written by lawyers acting on behalf of creditors in 2015, quoted by the Washington Post.

Massive blast rocks Beirut, Lebanon - Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

Massive blast rocks Beirut, Lebanon – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

Director General of Beirut Customs, Badri Daher, later pleaded in a letter to Lebanon's "judge of urgent matters" for the ammonium nitrate to be either re-exported or sold in 2017, but the pleas fell on deaf ears.

Daher warned of the "dangers if the materials remain where they are affecting the safety of (port) employees", according to the Associated Press (AP). Adding that similar letters were sent in 2014, 2015 and 2016, calling for the dangerous substance to be removed.

In the wake of the blasts, Lebanon's Prime Minister Hassan Diab ordered a thorough investigation into the explosion, saying in a televised address on Tuesday:

What happened today will not pass without accountability… those responsible for this catastrophe will pay the price.

Diab later appealed for international aid to help Lebanon cope with the aftermath of the explosion. A two-week state of emergency has been declared.

READ: Lebanon is one long tale of disaster and crisis

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