Troops fire on Beirut protesters as streets brim with violence

Troops fire on Beirut protesters as streets brim with violence

August 8, 2020

Fury fanned by flames: Troops fire tear gas on anti-government protesters who hurl them back as Beirut streets brim with violence in wake of mega-blast

  • Lebanese riot police fired tear gas at thousands of anti-government protestors in Beirut’s Martyrs’ Square 
  • Five thousands people marched on parliament as they vented their fury at Lebanon’s political class
  • Demonstrators threw stones and build mock gallows as they blamed the government for Tuesday’s blast
  • The explosion killed 158 people and wounded 6,000, Lebanon’s health ministry said in a statement today  

Lebanese riot police fired tear gas at thousands of demonstrators who gathered in central Beirut today to protest the government’s handling of a deadly explosion which has turned the city into a disaster zone. 

Around 5,000 people have gathered in Martyrs’ Square in the city centre to vent their fury at Lebanon’s political elite, with some throwing stones while others set up mock gallows and brandished symbolic nooses to hang politicians whose corruption and negligence they blame for Tuesday’s explosion at the Port of Beirut.    

A large deployment of security forces tried to contain some groups who chanted ‘the people want the fall of the regime’ which advanced towards parliament before riot police used tear gas against them. 

The protesters later set on fire a truck that was fortifying barriers on a road leading to parliament in the first significant demonstration since Tuesday’s blast – the biggest explosion in Beirut’s history.  

The gathering at Martyrs’ Square and outside the parliament building and government headquarters came amid popular anger against Lebanon’s political leadership, with protestors chanting ‘the people want the fall of the regime’ and holding up posters which read ‘leave, you are all killers’.

The country’s ruling class, made up mostly of former civil war-era leaders, is blamed for widespread corruption, incompetence and mismanagement that contributed to Tuesday’s explosion. 

This week’s blast killed 158 people and wounded 6,000, the health ministry media office said on Saturday.  Although the government has promised to hold those responsible to account, some residents complain the government they see as corrupt has let them down again.  

People clash with police during a protest against the political elites and the government after this week’s deadly explosion at Beirut port which devastated large parts of the capital and killed more than 150 people, in Beirut, Lebanon

Lebanese security forces take cover during clashes with protesters in downtown Beirut on August 8, 2020, following a demonstration against a political leadership they blame for a monster explosion that killed more than 150 people

A vehicle burns as demonstrators gather near the parliament building during a protest following Tuesday’s blast, in Beirut

People clash with police during a protest against the political elites and the government after this week’s deadly explosion at Beirut port which devastated large parts of the capital and killed more than 150 people, in Beirut, Lebanon

Lebanese security forces advance during clashes with protesters in downtown Beirut on August 8, 2020, following a demonstration against a political leadership they blame for a monster explosion that killed more than 150 people


Video taken by a woman living near the warehouse showed sparks shooting into the air as plumes of smoke rose over the port

‘France will never let Lebanon go’: Emmanuel Macron is accused of trying to reconquer Lebanon rather than help it in the wake of the devastating explosion at its capital which has killed 150 as country is set to refuse aid from Israel 

French president Emmanuel Macron has been accused of trying to reconquer Lebanon rather than help it in the wake of the devastating explosion at its capital which killed 150 people. 

It comes as the country is expected to refuse humanitarian aid from Israel because the two neighbours are technically still at war. 

Visiting explosion-ravaged Beirut this week, France’s leader comforted distraught crowds, promised to rebuild the city and claimed that the blast pierced France’s own heart. 

‘France will never let Lebanon go,’ Macron said. ‘The heart of the French people still beats to the pulse of Beirut.’

His critics have denounced his sentiments as a neocolonialist foray seeking to restore sway over a troubled Middle Eastern land.  

And critics online have dubbed him Macron Bonaparte, a 21st century Emperor Napoleon.

But Macron’s defenders – including desperate Beirut residents who called him ‘our only hope’ – praised him for visiting gutted neighbourhoods where Lebanese leaders are scared to go, and for trying to hold Lebanon’s politicians accountable for the corruption and mismanagement blamed for Tuesday’s deadly blast. 

‘We have no trust in our government,’ said university student Celine Dibo as she scrubbed blood off the walls of her shattered apartment building. ‘I wish the United Nations would take over Lebanon.’

Several people said they were not surprised that French President Emmanuel Macron had visited their gutted neighbourhoods this week while Lebanese leaders had not.

‘We are living in ground zero. I hope another country would just take us over. Our leaders are a bunch of corrupt people,’ said psychologist Maryse Hayek, 48, whose parents’ house was destroyed in the explosion.

Lebanon’s Kataeb Party, a Christian group that opposes the government backed by the Iran-aligned Hezbollah, announced on Saturday the resignation of its three lawmakers from parliament.

‘I invite all honourable (lawmakers) to resign so that the people can decide who will govern them, without anybody imposing anything to them,’ said party chief Samy Gemayel, announcing the move during the funeral of a leading member of the group who died in the explosion.

Macron, who visited Beirut on Thursday, promised angry crowds that aid to rebuild the city would not fall into ‘corrupt hands’. He will host a donor conference for Lebanon via video-link on Sunday, his office said. U.S. President Donald Trump said that he will join.

The prime minister and presidency have said 2,750 tonnes of highly explosive ammonium nitrate, which is used in making fertilisers and bombs, had been stored for six years without safety measures at the port warehouse. 

President Michel Aoun said on Friday an investigation would examine whether it was caused by a bomb or other external interference. Aoun said the investigation would also weigh if the blast was due to negligence or an accident. Twenty people had been detained so far, he added. 

Some residents wondered how they would ever rebuild their lives.

Tearing up, Bilal Hassan used his bare hands to try to remove debris from his home. He has been sleeping on a dusty couch besides pieces of splintered glass.

When his three wounded teenage children ran for their lives they left blood stains on the staircase and walls.

‘There is really nothing we can do. We can’t afford to rebuild and no one is helping us,’ he said, standing beside a large teddy bear that was blown across his home, and a damaged photograph of him and his wife.

Bulldozers ploughed through the wreckage of mangled homes and long rows of flattened cars as soldiers stood by. Volunteers with shovels streamed through streets.

Danielle Chemaly said her charity organisation, whose headquarters was destroyed, had provided assistance to 70 families who were left homeless.

‘We have given people initial help but we don’t know what we can do for families in the future. It requires major projects,’ she said. 

Lebanese security forces advance during clashes with protesters in downtown Beirut on August 8, 2020, following a demonstration against a political leadership they blame for a monster explosion that killed more than 150 people

Anti-government protesters try to remove concrete wall that installed by security forces to prevent protesters reaching the Parliament square, during a protest against the political elites and the government after this week’s deadly explosion

Lebanese army soldiers arrive to downtown Beirut on August 8, 2020, during a demonstration against a political leadership they blame for a monster explosion that killed more than 150 people 

Lebanese security forces advance during clashes with protesters in downtown Beirut on August 8, 2020, following a demonstration against a political leadership they blame for a monster explosion that killed more than 150 people

A Lebanese protester hurls a rock towards security forces during clashes in downtown Beirut on August 8, 2020, following a demonstration against a political leadership they blame for a monster explosion that killed more than 150 people

Demonstrators are seen during a protest near the parliament building following Tuesday’s blast, in Beirut, Lebanon

Lebanese protesters walk between tear-gas canisters during clashes with security forces in Beirut on August 8, 2020, following a demonstration against a political leadership they blame for a monster explosion that killed more than 150 people

Police deploy during a protest against the political elites and the government after this week’s deadly explosion at Beirut port which devastated large parts of the capital and killed more than 150 people

Bags of fireworks were stored alongside highly explosive ammonium nitrate at Beirut’s port, a former worker has claimed.

Yusuf Shehadi said dozens of fireworks were stored in the same hangar as thousands of tonnes of the powerful chemical compound in the port of Beirut, Lebanon.

Meanwhile, people were out hurling stones at riot police outside Lebanese parliament ahead of a major protest planned in downtown Martyrs’ Square on Saturday.

Critics call for an end to the country’s political system after Tuesday’s blast killed 137 people and wounded more than 5,000.

Mr Shehadi, who emigrated to Canada in March this year, told The Guardian he was instructed by the military to store 2,750 tonnes of the chemical in Warehouse 12.  

Yusuf Shehadi said dozens of fireworks were stored in the same hangar as thousands of tonnes of the powerful chemical compound ammonium nitrate (pictured) in Beirut, Lebanon

Officials have said the blast could have caused losses amounting to $15 billion. That is a bill that Lebanon cannot pay after already defaulting on a mountain of debt – exceeding 150% of economic output – and with talks stalled on a lifeline from the International Monetary Fund. 

France and other countries have rushed emergency aid to Lebanon, including doctors, and tons of health equipment and food. The blast destroyed Lebanon’s only major grain silo and UN agencies are helping provide emergency food and medical aid.

Arab League Chief Ahmed Aboul Gheit said after a meeting with Aoun on Saturday he would seek to mobilise Arab efforts to provide support to Lebanon. Also speaking after meeting Aoun, Turkish Vice President Fuat Oktay said his country was ready to help rebuild the port.

For ordinary Lebanese, the scale of destruction is overwhelming. ‘It felt like a mini atomic bomb,’ said George Rohana, sitting beside a supermarket that was demolished. 

Marita Abou Jawda was handing out bread and cheese to victims of the blast.

‘Macron offered to help and our government has not done anything. It has always been like that,’ she said. ‘After Macron visited I played the French national anthem all day in my car.’ 

The huge blast was caused by thousands of tons of ammonium nitrate improperly stored at the port for more than six years, apparently set off by a fire. It was the biggest in Lebanon’s history and caused an estimated $10-15 billion worth of damage, according to Beirut’s governor. It also left hundreds of thousands of people homeless.

The protest Saturday was the first significant demonstration since the explosion and organizers planned to hold a symbolic funeral for the dead. As the protest got underway however, small groups of young men began throwing stones at security forces. Near parliament, riot police fired tear gas at protesters who hurled stones and tried to jump over barriers that close the road leading to the legislature. The protesters later set on fire a truck that was fortifying barriers on a road leading to parliament.

The gathering at Martyrs Square and outside the parliament building and government headquarters came amid popular anger against Lebanon’s political leadership. The country’s ruling class, made up mostly of former civil war-era leaders, is blamed for widespread corruption, incompetence and mismanagement that contributed to Tuesday’s explosion.

The army issued a statement reminding the protesters to act peacefully and abstain from closing roads or attacking public or private property. Police also issued a statement after the protests began urging people to act ‘in a civilized way far away from violence.’

The protest came as senior officials from the Middle East and Europe arrived in Lebanon in a show of solidarity with the tiny country that is still in shock suffered after Tuesday’s blast.

Lebanese demonstrators throw tear-gas canisters back at security forces during clashes in Beirut on August 8, 2020, following a demonstration against a political leadership they blame for a monster explosion that killed more than 150 people

Demonstrators hurl stones during a protest near the parliament building following Tuesday’s blast, in Beirut, Lebanon

A Lebanese protester waves the national flag during clashes in downtown Beirut on August 8, 2020, following a demonstration against a political leadership they blame for a monster explosion that killed more than 150 people

Lebanese protester hurls a rock towards security forces during clashes in downtown Beirut on August 8, 2020, following a demonstration against a political leadership they blame for a monster explosion that killed more than 150 people

People clash with police during a protest against the political elites and the government after this week’s deadly explosion at Beirut port which devastated large parts of the capital and killed more than 150 people

Lebanese president suggests cataclysmic blast may have been caused by a rocket or bomb’ after demonstrators angry at ‘corrupt elite’ they blame for the explosion clashed with police in night of violence 

The Beirut disaster could have been caused by a ‘rocket or bomb’, Lebanon’s president said today after protests erupted at the elite corruption and incompetence which is widely blamed for the disaster. 

President Michel Aoun said that ‘the cause has not been determined yet’ three days after the disaster which has killed at least 154 people and devastated large swathes of the city. 

While authorities are investigating claims of negligence and have arrested 16 port officials, the president said there was also a ‘possibility of external interference through a rocket or bomb or other act’. 

Aoun also said that Lebanon’s ‘paralysed’ political system should be reconsidered in the nod to the protests which blame Tuesday’s explosion on years of mismanagement and corruption. 

He pledged ‘swift justice’ but rejected widespread calls for an international probe, telling a reporter he saw it as an attempt to ‘dilute the truth.’ 

Early reports said fireworks stored near the warehouse or welders being used to repair a broken gate might to be blame, while the United States has not ruled out the possibility of an attack. 

The son of an assassinated former Lebanese PM has pointed the finger at terrorist group Hezbollah, saying that nothing goes through the port without them knowing. 

Separately, claims emerged today that the cargo of ammonium nitrate which exploded in Warehouse 12 might have been diverted to Beirut on purpose despite officially being destined for Mozambique.  

Lebanon is mired in its worst economic and financial crisis in decades making it difficult for many people who had their properties damaged to fix them.

In a show of anger, the president of the Christian opposition Kataeb party said its three legislators have decided to resign from Parliament over this week’s ‘disaster.’ Sami Gemayel called on every ‘honorable’ member of parliament to resign and work for the ‘birth of a new Lebanon.’

A senior Kataeb party official was killed in the blast, which claimed at least 154 lives, wounded more than 5,000 people and laid waste to the country’s largest port and nearby areas.

Also killed were 43 Syrians, the country’s embassy in Beirut said. Lebanon is home to some 1 million Syrian refugees.

The Dutch foreign ministry said Saturday that Hedwig Waltmans-Molier, the wife of the Netherlands’ ambassador to Lebanon, had also died of injuries sustained in Tuesday’s blast.

Documents that surfaced after the blast showed that for years officials had been repeatedly warned that the presence of 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate at the port posed a grave danger, but no one acted to remove it. Officials have been blaming one another since the explosion and 19 people have been detained including the port’s chief, head of Lebanon’s customs department and his predecessor.

‘We will support Lebanon through all available means,’ Ahmed Aboul Gheit, the secretary-general of the 22-member Arab League told reporters after meeting President Michel Aoun on Saturday morning. 

Aboul Gheit said he would take part in a donors conference for Lebanon in France on Sunday and convey Lebanon’s demands to the international community.

Later on Saturday the president of the European Council, Charles Michel, arrived in Beirut for a brief visit. Turkey’s vice president and the country’s foreign minister arrived Saturday morning and met Aoun, saying that Ankara was ready to help rebuild Beirut’s port and evacuate some of the wounded from Lebanon to Turkey for treatment.

At the site of the blast in Beirut’s port, workers were still searching for dozens of people who have been missing since Tuesday. Bulldozers were also seen removing debris near the giant grain silos that are still partly standing.

International aid has been flowing to Lebanon for days and several field hospitals have been set up around Beirut to help treat the wounded.

President Donald Trump said Friday that he had spoken by telephone with Aoun and French President Emmanuel Macron, who paid a brief visit to Lebanon on Thursday. 

Trump did not mention the investigation, but noted that medical supplies, food and water were being sent from the United States, along with emergency responders, technicians, doctors and nurses.

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.

In 2014, the material was moved from the ship and placed in a warehouse at the port where it stayed until the explosion.

Lebanon’s Hezbollah ‘categorically denies’ storing arms at Beirut blast site and president suggests explosion may have been caused by a ‘rocket or bomb’ amid claims explosives may have been deliberately diverted there on a ‘scrap ship’

  • The ammonium nitrate was officially destined for Mozambique when it sailed on the cargo ship Rhosus
  • But it made an unscheduled stop in Beirut where the chemicals which exploded this week were impounded
  • Russian news outlet claims that the Rhosus was a piece of ‘scrap’ which would never have got to Mozambique
  • Hezbollah leader strongly denied any connection to explosion or having arms stored in the Port of Beirut
  • New pictures emerged of bags of chemicals piled high at the port of Beirut just days before the explosion 
  • At least 154 people have died and 300,000 people have been left homeless since Tuesday’s disaster

By Will Stewart and Tim Stickings for MailOnline  

The leader of Hezbollah has strongly denied that his militant political group had stored arms at Beirut’s port, describing the cataclysmic explosion there as ‘a major tragedy’.

‘We have nothing in the port: not an arms depot, nor a missile depot nor missiles nor rifles nor bombs nor bullets nor (ammonium) nitrate,’ Hassan Nasrallah said in a televised speech three days after the blast in the Lebanese capital that killed more than 150 people.

He called the explosion a ‘major tragedy and humanitarian catastrophe,’ saying it required a kind of response that would match its ‘exceptional’ scale.

His retort comes amid claims that the 2,750 tonnes of explosive ammonium nitrate which caused the disaster may have been diverted to Lebanon on purpose, having been officially destined for Mozambique. 

The horrific blast on Tuesday injured at least 5,000 people and devastated entire districts of the capital, leaving some 300,000 people temporarily homeless. An investigation by authorities has so far led to 21 arrests, as well as travel bans and asset freezes.

Authorities had said a fire at the port had ignited tonnes of ammonium nitrate which had been stored there for years, but President Michel Aoun said today it could have been caused by an attack.

Aoun rejected calls for an international probe while Nasrallah urged ‘the army to investigate and announce its findings’.

He said the Lebanese military is in a prime position to do so because it is seen as a ‘trusted’ institution by people and politicians across the spectrum.

The Hezbollah leader warned against delays in the probe, saying: ‘If the Lebanese state and the political class… do not reach a conclusion in the investigations this means… there is no hope to build a state.’

But questions have been raised President Aoun and others as to reason why tonnes of dangerous chemicals ended up being kept in the port for six years without proper safeguards in place. 

Ammonium nitrate parcels stored in Beirut’s ill-fated Warehouse 12 just day before the accident which has killed at least 154 people and sparked fury at the corruption and incompetence of Lebanon’s elite 

Pictures shared by Lebanese journalist Dima Sadek show the ‘death bags’ containing high-density ammonium nitrate piled up in Beirut’s ill-fated Warehouse 12 shortly before the explosion

The shipment of ammonium nitrate was officially destined for Mozambique when it sailed on the cargo ship Rhosus in 2013, but the vessel made an unscheduled stop in Beirut where the chemicals were impounded

The leader of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, has strongly denied that his militant political group had stored arms at Beirut’s port, describing the cataclysmic explosion there as ‘a major tragedy’

Wreckage lies in front of destroyed grain silos in the port of Beirut today, three days after the devastating explosion in the Lebanese capital 

Russian emergency personnel walk on the site of the explosion in the port of Beirut, where rescuers are continuing their recovery efforts three days after the blast 

Explosion sparks panic over food shortages 

The annihilation of the port in Tuesday’s explosion has further strained food access for a population that relies on imports for 85 per cent of what it eats.

Some 15,000 tonnes of wheat, corn and barley were blasted out of the towering 55-year-old silos and a nearby mill was destroyed.  

At least one ship unloading wheat during the explosion was damaged, its stocks inedible.

The day after the blast, hundreds of customers flocked to the Al-Kaboushieh Bakery in Beirut’s Hamra district to stock up on bread.

‘Were completely sold out. Everyone was buying five bags instead of one in case there’d be no more,’ said employee Hayder Mussawi.

Lebanese bread makers and consumers fear the loss of the 120,000-tonne capacity silos will compound months of wheat worries, making bread harder to produce and ultimately more expensive for a population that has already seen its purchasing power slashed.

‘When we saw the silos, we panicked,’ said Ghassan Bou Habib, CEO of Lebanon’s Wooden Bakery pastry franchise. 

A liquidity crisis since the autumn saw banks halt dollar transfers abroad, which hampered imports.

Container activity had already declined by 45 per cent in the first half of 2020 compared to last year, according to Blominvest Bank, while the staggering devaluation of the Lebanese pound led to major price hikes.

‘We were already struggling with the (little) wheat and flour that were available. The mills weren’t getting enough or they didn’t have fuel to run,’ Bou Habib said.

 

The shipment of ammonium nitrate was destined for Mozambique when it sailed on the cargo ship Rhosus in 2013, but the vessel made an unscheduled stop in Beirut where the chemicals were impounded after the ship’s owner declared himself bankrupt.

A Russian news outlet in Cyprus claims that the Rhosus was a piece of ‘scrap’ which would never have made it to Mozambique and that the businessman behind the voyage had no history as a ship owner. 

Meanwhile the captain of the Rhosus claims he was told to stop in Beirut to pick up extra cargo – while Mozambique has denied all knowledge of the shipment. 

The deepening mystery comes as worrying new pictures emerged of bags of chemicals piled high at the port of Beirut just days before the warehouse blast. 

Pictures shared by Lebanese journalist Dima Sadek show the ‘death bags’ containing high-density ammonium nitrate piled up in Beirut’s ill-fated Warehouse 12 shortly before the explosion. 

Rescuers combed through the rubble of Beirut today in a search for survivors, with 154 people confirmed dead and protests erupting at the elite corruption and incompetence which are blamed for the disaster. 

Lebanon’s president Michel Aoun says the cause has not yet been determined but says there is a ‘possibility of external interference through a rocket or bomb or other act’ in addition to claims of negligence.  

Early reports said fireworks stored near the warehouse or welders being used to repair a broken gate might to be blame, while the United States has not ruled out the possibility of an attack. 

The son of an assassinated former Lebanese PM has separately pointed the finger at terrorist group Hezbollah, saying that nothing goes through the port without them knowing. 

Cypriot police say they have questioned Russian businessman Igor Grechushkin over his alleged links to the ship and its cargo of ammonium nitrate.

A police spokesman said Grechushkin was not arrested, but asked specific questions relating to the ship’s cargo as requested via Interpol Lebanon. 

He has also made contact with Russian diplomats via his lawyers since the Beirut explosion, it is understood, but has not made any public comment on the tragedy.

A Russian news outlet in Cyprus has claimed that Grechushkin had no history as a ship owner, and that this was the only known voyage he had arranged. 

He bought the Rhosus for €300,000 in Cyprus, which was €50,000 less than its scrap value at the time, it was claimed. 

‘Its technical state was exactly that, scrap,’ said the report on Cyprus24 site. ‘That ship would have definitely not have made it to Mozambique where the official buyer of the cargo is based.

The report claimed ‘it was a single-use ship for a single journey’, suggesting this was from Batumi in Georgia to Lebanon – and no further. 

The report in Cyprus asked: ‘Perhaps that cargo had a single purpose of being ‘arrested’ in Beirut and not to go any further.’ 

When it arrived in Beirut, the ship temporarily docked at the port but was later seized by authorities due to a lawsuit filed by a Lebanese company. 

Emergency workers sent by Russia continue their search and rescue efforts in the ruins of a grain silo destroyed by the explosion in Beirut on Tuesday 

A man wears a protective mask as he stands on rubble today at the site of the Beirut blast which has killed nearly 150 people

An aerial view of ruined structures at the port, damaged by an explosion which has devastated huge swathes of Beirut 

Port authorities unloaded the ammonium nitrate and stored it in the run-down warehouse, while the ship sank sometime later because of damage, it is believed. 

Mozambique port authorities yesterday denied any knowledge of the ship, which was officially bound for the African country’s city of Beira.

‘The port operator was not aware that the vessel MV Rhosus would dock at the port of Beira,’ the city’s port authority said in a statement.

It said typically the arrival of any ship at the port ‘is announced by the ship’s agent to the port operator seven to 15 days in advance’.

One official said the final destination of the cargo was not Mozambique but Zimbabwe or Zambia, because ammonium nitrate is used to manufacture explosive materials used in the mining industry.

The Mozambique company which was due to receive the order, Fabrica de Explosivos, has not commented on the explosion. 

At least 154 people have so far been confirmed dead, with some 5,000 wounded, 300,000 homeless, and widespread damage which is estimated to total more than $5billion

Lebanese electricity workers fix power cables, next to the site of this week’s massive explosion in the port of Beirut

Capsized and destroyed ships at the scene of Tuesday’s explosion, which has devastated huge parts of Beirut 

Israel shoots down drone coming from Lebanon 

The Israeli army shot down a drone coming from Lebanon last night with the border on heightened alert.  

Israeli troops took out a drone which entered their airspace in the Mount Hermon area, the army said.

‘The drone was monitored and downed,’ it said, adding Israeli troops were conducting searches in the area.

Mount Hermon is a strategic and fortified outpost at the crossroads between Israel, Lebanon and Syria.

An Israeli military official said that the drone had arrived from Lebanon.

The army’s statement said that troops were on ‘elevated preparedness in the north and will not tolerate any violation of Israeli sovereignty’.

It did not disclose the type of drone, its size or who it suspected of dispatching it.

Israel’s army has reinforced its northern frontiers with Lebanon and Syria in recent weeks, so as to ready itself for ‘diverse’ potential enemy actions.

The Jewish state late last month said it had repelled an attempt by Hezbollah fighters to penetrate the border, but the Shiite Lebanese group denied any involvement in the incident.

That border clash came a week after an alleged Israeli missile attack hit positions of Syrian regime forces and their allies south of Damascus, killing five.

Initial Lebanese investigations into what happened have pointed to inaction and negligence in the handling of the potentially dangerous chemical.

Lebanon’s cabinet has resolved to place all Beirut port officials who have overseen storage and security since 2014 under house arrest.

The 16 port officials arrested include Beirut Port General Manager Hassan Koraytem, according to a judicial source, while the central bank said his accounts had been frozen.   

Shock has turned to anger in Lebanon since Tuesday’s colossal explosion killed at least 154 people, with security forces firing tear gas at demonstrators who gathered near parliament late Thursday. 

In addition to the dozens of deaths, the blast has injured more than 5,000 people, left 300,000 others homeless and sparked panic over wheat shortages after 15,000 tonnes of grains were blasted out of the silos. 

At least one ship unloading wheat during the explosion was damaged, its stocks inedible.

The day after the blast, hundreds of customers flocked to the Al-Kaboushieh Bakery in Beirut’s Hamra district to stock up on bread.

‘Were completely sold out. Everyone was buying five bags instead of one in case there’d be no more,’ said employee Hayder Mussawi.

Lebanese bread makers and consumers fear the loss of the 120,000-tonne capacity silos will compound months of wheat worries, making bread harder to produce and ultimately more expensive for a population that has already seen its purchasing power slashed.

‘When we saw the silos, we panicked,’ said Ghassan Bou Habib, CEO of Lebanon’s Wooden Bakery pastry franchise. 

Many Lebanese put the blame squarely on the political elite and the corruption and mismanagement that even before the disaster had pushed the country to the brink of economic collapse. 

Lebanon is already seeking $20billion in funding from the IMF and now faces billions more in disaster costs, with losses from the explosion estimated to be between $10billion and $15billion.  

Lebanese security forces faced off with dozens of anti-government demonstrators last night, angered by the devastating explosion widely seen as the most shocking expression yet of the government’s incompetence

Tear gas was fired to disperse scuffles that broke out in ravaged streets in central Beirut leading to parliament, the wreckage from Tuesday’s explosion still littering the entire area

UNITED STATES: People take part in a candlelight vigil for victims of the Beirut disaster in Los Angeles on Thursday night 

BRAZIL: The Christ the Redeemer statue is lit up with an image depicting the Lebanon national flag in Rio de Janeiro last night

President rejects international probe 

Lebanon’s president today said a missile or bomb could have caused the catastrophic port blast, while rejecting calls for an international probe into the disaster.    

President Michel Aoun said that ‘the cause has not been determined yet’ three days after the disaster which has killed at least 154 people. 

While authorities are investigating claims of negligence and have arrested 16 port officials, the president said there was also a ‘possibility of external interference through a rocket or bomb or other act’.  

Aoun admitted that the ‘paralysed’ political system needed to be ‘reconsidered’ amid fury at the elite and its perceived corruption and incompetence. 

‘We are facing changes and reconsidering our system, which is built on consensus, after it was seen to be paralysed and incapable of swiftly executing decisions,’ Aoun told reporters.

He pledged ‘swift justice’ but rejected widespread calls for an international probe, telling a reporter he saw it as an attempt to ‘dilute the truth.’

‘There are two possible scenarios for what happened: it was either negligence or foreign interference through a missile or bomb,’ he said, the first time a top Lebanese official raised the possibility that the port had been attacked.

What ignited the 2,750 tonnes of fertiliser is still unclear. Officials have said work had recently begun on repairs to the warehouse, while fireworks were stored nearby. 

Beirut has received a stream of international assistance since the blast, while French president Emmanuel Macron visited yesterday to demand deep reform of the country. 

Mr Macron, who was mobbed by angry Lebanese during the first visit by a foreign leader since the explosion, promised to mobilise aid to the former French protectorate. 

However, he warned there would be no blank cheque for leaders without serious reform, and at a press conference he called for an international inquiry into the explosion.  

‘If reforms are not carried out, Lebanon will continue to sink,’ Macron said after being met at the airport by Lebanese President Michel Aoun. 

‘What is also needed here is political change. This explosion should be the start of a new era.’ 

He also promised that French aid would be given out with transparency and ‘will not go into the hands of corruption.’ 

Lebanon’s leadership was already deeply unpopular, with a wave of mass protests that erupted in October last year only abating in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. 

World leaders have joined the chorus of voices in Lebanon and the diaspora demanding an international inquiry into the cause of the devastation.

The UN children’s agency UNICEF has said nearly 80,000 children are among the 300,000 people left homeless, including many who have been separated from their families. 

The cost of the widespread damage is estimated at up to $15billion – including a 390ft cruise ship which capsized as a result of the blast.

The Orient Queen, which had capacity for up to 300 passengers, was not carrying any passengers on board at the time after summer cruising operations had been cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic. 

A view of shipping containers at the damaged site of Tuesday’s blast in Beirut’s port area today 

Yesterday a crowd mobbed visiting French President Emmanuel Macron, demanding his help in overthrowing Lebanon’s reviled leaders, with many chanting for ‘revolution’ and to ‘bring down the regime’

One of the ship’s crew was killed with another still missing. Several other members of the crew remain in hospitals across the city, according to the ship’s operator Abou Merhi Cruises.

‘It’s a sad, sad day for all of us,’ said the cruise operator on social media. 

‘Abou Merhi Cruises has lost a precious soul in the tragedy that took place at the port of Beirut. Heilemariam Reta (Hailey) from Ethiopia.

‘Our prayers and thoughts are with the family of Mustafa Airout from Syria who was at the port and is still missing’. 

Hospitals have also been badly damaged by the explosion, and medical centres were overwhelmed with cases other than Covid-19 for the first time in months with some having to turn away the wounded.  

Near the disembowelled silos at the port of Beirut, Russian rescuers were ankle-deep in corn as excavators removed mangled shipping containers.

Civil defence teams anxiously watched a sniffer dog as he paced around a gap under a fallen crane. French rescuers said they had recovered four bodies, but had found nobody alive so far.

Relatives of the missing have been flocking to the port for days hoping to know the fate of their loved ones.

Lebanon’s hospitals, already strained by a wave of coronavirus cases and a severe economic crisis, have been unable to cope with the number of casualties. 

Relief flights from Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were set to land in Lebanon on Friday, following others from France, Kuwait, Qatar and Russia.

Two days after the blast, Lebanese were flocking to a Russian field hospital newly established in the capital’s largest sport stadium.

Medics were still erected nearly 20 medical tents when the first wave of patients started to arrive.

They included a 93-year-old man suffering back and chest pains after Tuesday’s blast and a Syrian three-year-old whose scalp was scarred by a shard of glass.    

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