Lebanon questions security chief, minister quits over blast
Published 10:59 am Monday, August 10, 2020
By BASSEM MROUE
BEIRUT (AP) — A Lebanese judge on Monday began questioning the heads of the country’s security agencies over last week’s devastating blast in Beirut as another Cabinet minister resigned in protest.
The Cabinet was scheduled to convene later Monday, amid speculation that the government could resign en masse. Or, if four more ministers resign, the Cabinet would collapse, consigning it to caretaker status until a new one is formed.
The massive blast on Aug. 4 has brought a new wave of public outrage at the government and Lebanon’s long entrenched ruling class. Protests were planned outside the government headquarters to coincide with the Cabinet meeting after large demonstrations over the weekend that saw clashes with security forces firing tear gas at protesters.
The explosion, centered at Beirut port, is believed to have been caused by a fire that ignited a 2,750-ton stockpile of explosive ammonium nitrate. The material had been stored at the port since 2013 with few safeguards despite numerous warnings of the danger.
The result was a disaster Lebanese blame squarely on their leadership’s corruption and neglect. The blast killed at least 160 people and wounded about 6,000, in addition to destroying the country’s main port and damaging large parts of the capital. Losses from the blast are estimated to be between $10 billion to $15 billion, and nearly 300,000 people were left homeless in the immediate aftermath.
Public Prosecutor Ghassan El Khoury began questioning Maj. Gen. Tony Saliba, the head of State Security, according to state-run National News Agency. It gave no further details, but other generals are scheduled to be questioned.
State Security had compiled a report about the dangers of storing the material at the port and sent a copy to the offices of the president and prime minister on July 20. The investigation is focused on how the ammonium nitrate came to be stored at the port and why nothing was done about it.
About 20 people have been detained over the blast, including the head of Lebanon’s customs department and his predecessor, as well as the head of the port. Dozens of people have been questioned, including two former Cabinet ministers, according to government officials.
Meanwhile, Justice Minister Marie-Claude Najm on Monday handed in her resignation, the third Cabinet minister to resign over the blast. She felt the brunt of protesters’ anger when she tried to visit a damaged neighborhood and was met by shouted insults, sprayed by water hoses and forced to leave.
If a total seven ministers of the 20 Cabinet ministers resign, a new government must be formed. At least nine members of parliament have also resigned.
On Sunday, world leaders and international organizations pledged nearly $300 million in emergency humanitarian aid to Beirut in the wake of the explosion, but warned that no money for rebuilding the capital would be made available until Lebanese authorities commit themselves to the political and economic reforms demanded by the people.
Iran meanwhile expressed concern that Western countries and their allies might exploit anger over the explosion to pursue their political interests. Iran supports the Hezbollah militant group, which along with its allies dominates the government and parliament.
Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi said “it is natural for people to be frustrated.” But he said it would be “unacceptable if some individuals, groups and foreign countries use the incident as a pretext for their purposes and intentions.”
Israel’s defense minister drew a line Monday between the blast and claims that Hezbollah stores its rockets and weapons deep inside civilian areas.
While he did not accuse Hezbollah and its arms of being linked to the blast, Benny Gantz said villages and towns across Lebanon were packed with Hezbollah arms that if set off — whether by Israeli operations or by accident — would destroy homes. He said Hezbollah was Lebanon’s biggest problem.