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Lebanon: government was told about explosion threat weeks before Beirut blast

Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab in the capital Beirut, Lebanon on 10 August 2020 [Lebanese Presidency/Anadolu Agency]
Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab in the capital Beirut, Lebanon on 10 August 2020 [Lebanese Presidency/Anadolu Agency]

Lebanese security officials informed the President and Prime Minister last month about the 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate that was stored in a Beirut port warehouse, court documents have revealed. They warned that it would pose a security risk weeks before the blast that rocked Beirut a week ago today.

According to a report by the General Directorate of State Security, a private letter was sent to President Michel Aoun and Prime Minister Hassan Diab on 20 July. It apparently presented details of the security risk that the chemical posed to Lebanon’s capital city.

Although not actually seen by Reuters, the agency was told by a senior security official that the letter was a summary of the findings of a judicial investigation in January. The conclusion then was that the ammonium nitrate needed to be secured and moved from the port immediately.

“At the end of the investigation, Prosecutor General [Ghassan] Oweidat prepared a final report which was sent to the authorities,” said the official, who was involved in writing the letter and asked to remain anonymous. “I warned them that this could destroy Beirut if it exploded… There was [also] a danger that this material, if stolen, could be used in a terrorist attack.”

It has been claimed since the explosion that many memos and letters were sent to the country’s courts over the past six years by port, customs and security officials. They all apparently urged the judiciary to order the removal of the ammonium nitrate from its position so close to the city centre.

Just over two weeks after the President and Prime Minister were informed of that danger, the chemicals exploded in a catastrophic blast that destroyed the immediate area and damaged buildings across the city, killing over 160 people and injuring more than 6,000 others. The rebuilding of Beirut is expected to cost up to $15 billion in a country already more or less bankrupt.

READ: The Beirut explosion has serious implications for Israel and Hezbollah

A representative of Hassan Diab acknowledged that the letter was received and sent to the Supreme Defence Council for advice within 48 hours. He justified Diab’s actions by stating that, “The current cabinet received the file 14 days prior to the explosion and acted on it in a matter of days. Previous administrations had over six years and did nothing.”

President Aoun also confirmed that he was informed of the ammonium nitrate and the threat it posed. He told reporters last week that he too forwarded it to the Supreme Defence Council and told its Secretary-General to “do what is necessary”.

“[The Council] said it is dangerous,” explained Aoun. “I am not responsible! I don’t know where it was put and I didn’t know how dangerous it was. I have no authority to deal with the port directly. There is a hierarchy and all those who knew should have known their duties to do what was necessary.”

The revelation that the government knew at the very highest levels about the danger of the chemicals, and the subsequent lack of action to remove them from the port proves to many people the extent of the corruption and incompetence of the Lebanese authorities. The entire government of Lebanon resigned yesterday amid protests against such corruption and the mismanagement that led to the blast.

READ: The Politics of War: What is Israel’s Endgame in Lebanon and Syria?

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