Huge blaze at Beirut port alarms residents a month after massive blast

By Tom Perry and Alaa Kanaan

BEIRUT (Reuters) – A large fire erupted at Beirut port on Thursday, engulfing parts of the Lebanese capital in a pall of smoke weeks after a massive blast devastated the port and surrounding residential area.

The blaze began in the shattered duty free zone of the port, prompting some residents to flee the city still traumatized by last month’s explosion which followed a port fire.

Army helicopters dropped water as firefighters battled on the ground to bring the blaze under control. By evening, officials said most flames had been extinguished. Smoke still rose from smoldering wreckage but it was far less dense.

“For sure we were scared, it’s only been a month since the explosion that destroyed Beirut. We saw the same thing happening again,” 53-year-old Andre Muarbes said as soot and ash fell on vehicles and buildings across parts of the capital.

Officials said no one had been injured, but the blaze strained nerves already on edge in a nation grappling with a deep economic crisis that has posed the biggest threat to Lebanon’s stability since its 1975-1990 civil war.

Michel Najjar, public works minister in the outgoing government which resigned in the wake of the blast, told Lebanon’s MTV initial indications suggested the blaze was sparked by welding work during repairs at the port.

A military source said it appeared to have started when cooking oil caught fire and spread to stores of tires. At one point, live television footage had shown flames licking up near a pile of tires in a warehouse ruined by last month’s explosion.

The Aug. 4 blast killed about 190 people and injured 6,000.

Majed Hassanein, 49, was taking his wife and two children out of the capital by car during the height of the blaze. “I am forced to get them out of Beirut from the smoke and the fire that is happening at the port again,” he said.

His son, he said, was still suffering shock from the blast that ruined a swathe of capital near the port, leaving about 300,000 people without inhabitable homes and shattering windows across the city.

The head of Lebanon’s Red Cross, George Kettaneh, said there were no injuries but some people suffered shortness of breath.

The public prosecutor ordered an immediate investigation. Many Lebanese are frustrated that they have not been told about any initial findings from an investigation into the port blast, more than a month after it ripped through Beirut.

Carmen Geha, an activist and associate professor at the American University of Beirut, said the fire was further proof of mismanagement by a ruling elite, who have dragged the nation into crisis after years of corruption and poor governance.

“It’s a gross crime, gross negligence and gross arrogance,” she said. “You can’t trust them to manage anything.”

Firefighters were shown in television footage dousing the port fire surrounded by mangled remains of warehouses destroyed in last month’s explosion, which was caused by a store of ammonium nitrate that had been kept in poor condition at the port for years.

(Reporting by Alaa Kanaan, Tom Perry and Reuters reporters; Writing by Edmund Blair; Editing by Jon Boyle, Toby Chopra and Philippa Fletcher)

U.S. slaps sanctions on two former Lebanese ministers over ties to Hezbollah

FILE PHOTO: A man holds a Hezbollah flag at Meis al-Jabal village in south Lebanon, December 9, 2018. REUTERS/Aziz Taher

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States on Tuesday expanded its sanctions on Lebanon, blacklisting the former finance and transport ministers and accusing them of providing material and financial help to Iran-backed Shi’ite group Hezbollah, following a powerful blast last month in Beirut that left the country reeling.

“Corruption has run rampant in Lebanon, and Hezbollah has exploited the political system to spread its malign influence,” U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a statement, announcing the blacklisting of former Lebanese government ministers Yusuf Finyanus and Ali Hassan Khalil.

“The United States stands with the people of Lebanon in their calls for reform and will continue to use its authorities to target those who oppress and exploit them,” he added.

The move freezes any U.S. assets of the two blacklisted and generally bars Americans from dealing with them. Those that engage in certain transactions with the former officials are also at risk of being hit with secondary sanctions, the Treasury said.

Fifteen years after the assassination of Lebanon’s Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri, Hezbollah has risen to become the overarching power in a country that is now collapsing under a series of devastating crises.

An Aug. 4 blast killed about 190 people, injured 6,000 more, and destroyed large swaths of the Mediterranean city, compounding a deep financial crisis.

Authorities said the blast was caused by about 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate that had been stacked in unsafe conditions in a port warehouse for years.

Washington accused Finyanus of accepting “hundreds of thousands of dollars” from Hezbollah in exchange for political favors and said the former transport minister was among the officials Hezbollah used to siphon funds from government budgets to ensure Hezbollah-owned firms won bids for government contracts.

The Treasury also said Finyanus helped Hezbollah gain access to sensitive legal documents related to the Special Tribunal for Lebanon and served as “a go-between” for Hezbollah and political allies.

Ali Hassan Khalil, who was the finance minister until this year, was one of the officials Hezbollah leveraged a relationship with for financial gain, the Treasury said, accusing him of working to move money in a way that would dodge U.S. sanctions.

Washington said Khalil used his position as the finance minister to get sanctions relief on Hezbollah, and was demanding a certain personal commission to be paid to him directly from government contracts.

(Reporting by Daphne Psaledakis and Humeyra Pamuk; Editing by Tom Brown)

On eve of Hariri verdict, Lebanese grapple with new ordeal

By Tom Perry and Ghaida Ghantous

BEIRUT (Reuters) – More than 15 years since Lebanon’s Rafik al-Hariri was killed by a massive bomb blast in Beirut, the verdict of a U.N.-backed tribunal into his assassination is due on Tuesday as the country reels from the aftermath of an even bigger explosion.

The Aug. 4 port blast, which killed 178 people, has overshadowed the long-awaited verdict. It was the biggest explosion in Lebanon’s history and more powerful than the bomb that killed Hariri and 21 others on Beirut’s seafront corniche in 2005.

Hariri, a Sunni billionaire seen as a threat to Iranian and Syrian influence in Lebanon, had close ties with the United States, Western and Sunni Gulf Arab allies opposed to Iran’s expanding role in Lebanon and the region.

Four members of the Iran-backed Shi’ite group Hezbollah have been on trial in absentia over the killing of Saudi-backed Hariri, Lebanon’s main Sunni Muslim leader. Hezbollah denies any role in the killing, which set the stage for years of confrontation, culminating in a brief civil war in 2008.

The verdict comes as new divisions emerge over demands for an international inquiry and political accountability for the port blast, caused by a huge amount of unsafely stored chemicals.

It may further complicate an already tumultuous situation following the explosion and the resignation of the government backed by Hezbollah and its allies.

“We’re scared. The country is unsettled,” said Ebtisam Salam, a woman in her 60’s, from Beirut’s Tariq al-Jadida neighbourhood, a political stronghold of the Hariri’s Future Movement which has been led by his son Saad son his death.

She plans to watch the verdict on TV. “Hopefully the truth will come out,” she said.

The U.N.-backed tribunal was a first for Lebanon. For its supporters, it held out hope that – for once – the truth could be uncovered in one of Lebanon’s many assassinations.

Hezbollah has always dismissed it as a tool in the hands of its adversaries. Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, its leader, said on Friday, the group was not concerned with the verdict and insisted on the innocence of its members.

Hariri’s supporters, including his son Saad who like his father served as prime minister, say they are not seeking revenge or confrontation, but that the court verdict must be respected.

“A lot of people are waiting for this decision for closure. This tribunal has cost not only money but blood,” Basem Shaab, Saad al-Hariri’s diplomatic adviser, told Reuters.

“It will have consequences, I do not expect turmoil in the streets. I think Prime Minister Hariri was wise enough to make sure this does not turn into a sectarian issue,” he said.

“THEY ASSASSINATED A CITY”

But Mohanad Hage Ali of the Carnegie Middle East Center said there was the possibility of increased tensions.

“While the Future Movement and Hezbollah seem to be on alert and trying to avoid any repercussions, some other actors might jump in and react given the current level of tensions,” he said.

The Aug. 4 blast has fueled anger at ruling politicians who were already facing criticism over a financial meltdown that has sunk the currency and demolished the value of savings.

Many Lebanese doubt the authorities can carry out a proper investigation into the blast. Some want foreign intervention. Others, notably Hezbollah, do not.

Agents with the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation arrived over the weekend to help at the authorities’ request but have yet to visit the port, Lebanese sources said.

Hezbollah, which is listed as a terrorist group by the United States, opposes the FBI’s involvement and any international inquiry, saying this would aim to cover up any involvement by Israel – if it was involved.

Israel has denied any role.

President Michel Aoun, a Hezbollah ally, has said a probe will look into whether the blast was caused by negligence, an accident or “external interference”.

Many worry the sectarian elite will escape accountability.

Ziad Sahyouni, 55, questioned the importance of the verdict set against the port blast. “They assassinated a capital, a city. Let’s hope they do something about it.”

(Writing by Tom Perry, Editing by William Maclean)

World must not play politics with Lebanon’s pain, Iran says

By Maher Chmaytelli

BEIRUT (Reuters) – The global community should help Lebanon rather than impose its will on the country, Iran’s foreign minister said while in Beirut on Friday, following the catastrophic blast at the city’s port that killed 172 people and pushed the government to resign.

Iran backs Lebanon’s powerful armed movement Hezbollah, which along with its allies helped form the outgoing government. The United States classifies Hezbollah as a terrorist group.

Mohammed Javad Zarif was speaking after meeting President Michel Aoun, who had earlier met with U.S. and French officials in a flurry of Western diplomacy that has focused on urging Lebanon to fight corruption and enact long-delayed reforms to unlock foreign financial aid to tackle an economic crisis.

“There should be international efforts to help Lebanon, not to impose anything on it,” Zarif said in televised comments.

He earlier remarked that the Lebanese people and their representatives should decide on the future of Lebanon. “It is not humane to exploit the pain and suffering of the people for political goals,” he said.

Lebanese had been staging angry protests against a political elite blamed for the country’s many woes even before the Aug 4. blast, which injured 6,000, damaged swathes of the Mediterranean city and left 300,000 homeless. Some 30 people remain missing.

The explosion sharply deepened anger at the authorities.

“We can’t live like this. The West has to pressure our leaders to save us,” said Iyaam Ghanem, a Beirut pharmacist.

U.S. Under-Secretary of State for Political Affairs David Hale and French Defense Minister Florence Parly met separately with Aoun on Friday.

Parly in televised remarks later called for the formation of a government capable of taking “courageous decisions”.

CALLS FOR JUSTICE

Hale said on Thursday the United States’ FBI would join a probe into the blast at a hangar in the port where highly-explosive material detonated in a mushroom cloud. Hale called for an end to “dysfunctional governments and empty promises”.

International humanitarian aid has poured in but foreign states have linked any financial assistance to reform of the Lebanese state, which has defaulted on its huge sovereign debts.

Zarif said Tehran and private Iranian companies were ready to help with reconstruction and rehabilitating Lebanon’s electricity sector, which is a chief target of reform.

France’s navy helicopter carrier Tonnerre docked at the port, where authorities say more than 2,000 tonnes of ammonium nitrate had been stored for years without safety measures.

Aoun told Hale that Beirut needed help to “understand the circumstances” under which the nitrate shipment was brought into the port and unloaded, an official statement said.

Aoun has said the probe would look into whether the cause was negligence, an accident or “external interference”.

Victims and their representatives told reporters that only an independent probe would deliver justice, appealing to the U.N. Security Council for an international investigation and the referral of the blast to an international court.

“Is it acceptable that people find their homes shattered, their families killed, their hopes and their dreams killed, with no justice,” said Paul Najjar, whose three-year-old daughter Alexandra died in the blast.

State news agency NNA said questioning of some ministers due on Friday had been postponed as the judge appointed for the task said he did not have authority to question government ministers.

The cabinet resignation has fueled uncertainty. Agreement on a new government will likely be very difficult in a country with deep factional rifts and a sectarian power-sharing system.

Senior Christian cleric Maronite Patriarch Bechara Boutros Al-Rai, who wants Beirut kept out of regional conflicts, said a new Lebanon was being “cooked in kitchens” of foreign countries, which he did not name, to serve the interest of politicians.

(Reporting by Maher Chmaytelli, Michael Georgy and Beirut and Dubai bureaus; Writing by Ghaida Ghantous; Editing by Gareth Jones, William Maclean)

Beirut blast halts American-Lebanese woman’s final journey home

By Callaghan O’Hare and Maria Caspani

HOUSTON (Reuters) – Rami Basbous was on the phone with his uncle in Beirut on August 4, making arrangements to return his mother’s remains from the United States to her birthplace, when he heard the blast that reduced large parts of the Lebanese capital to rubble.

The explosion, the biggest in Beirut’s history, killed at least 172 people, injured some 6,000 and triggered protests against Lebanon’s political elite. It also put an end to the Basbous family’s plan to bury a beloved wife and mother alongside her relatives.

“Before the blast and riots we had a very large set of hurdles to get through but it was doable,” said Rami, 21, after his mother’s funeral on Wednesday in Houston, Texas. “After the blast and now the riots we have a very slim chance at getting her there safely.”

Rita Basbous died earlier this month at age 53 in Houston, weeks after undergoing heart surgery. Rita, whose health was already compromised by a decades-long struggle with diabetes and related kidney problems, contracted the coronavirus in April and fought it through May.

She eventually recovered, her son said, although the illness left her weak.

“She loved the world,” Rami said of his mother, who was born in Lebanon, spoke five languages and lived in Mauritania and the United States, following her father to his postings as a civil engineer.

After the Basbous family settled in Houston, Rita worked as a teacher and dedicated much of her time to volunteering and helping fellow immigrants, her son said.

Mask-clad mourners occupied every other row of pews at her funeral service at Our Lady of the Cedars Maronite Church in Houston. Pink and white roses adorned her casket.

In a time of pandemic, the family said they were grateful to be able to hold an in-person funeral at all.

The son, Rami, said restrictions imposed by the pandemic forced them to get creative and live stream the funeral for family and friends unable to attend.

For now, Rita has been buried at a Houston area cemetery. The family still hopes to return her remains to Lebanon but the unrest in Beirut, coupled with the health issues raised by coronavirus, have put those plans on hold for now.

“We joke that that was her telling us ‘no’,” Rami said.

(Reporting by Callaghan O’Hare in Houston, Texas; Writing by Maria Caspani; Editing by Diane Craft)

Exclusive: Lebanon’s leaders were warned in July about explosives at port – documents

By Samia Nakhoul and Laila Bassam

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Lebanese security officials warned the prime minister and president last month that 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate stored in Beirut’s port posed a security risk and could destroy the capital if it exploded, according to documents seen by Reuters and senior security sources.

Just over two weeks later, the industrial chemicals went up in a massive blast that obliterated most of the port and swathes of the capital, killed at least 163 people, injured 6,000 and destroyed 6,000 buildings, according to municipal authorities.

A report by the General Directorate of State Security on events leading up to the explosion included a reference to a private letter sent to President Michel Aoun and Prime Minister Hassan Diab on July 20.

While the content of the letter was not in the report seen by Reuters, a senior security official said it summed up the findings of a judicial investigation launched in January which concluded the chemicals needed to be secured immediately.

The state security report, which confirmed the correspondence to the president and the prime minister, has not previously been reported.

“There was a danger that this material, if stolen, could be used in a terrorist attack,” the official told Reuters.

“At the end of the investigation, Prosecutor General (Ghassan) Oweidat prepared a final report which was sent to the authorities,” he said, referring to the letter sent to the prime minister and president by the General Directorate of State Security, which oversees port security.

“I warned them that this could destroy Beirut if it exploded,” said the official, who was involved in writing the letter and declined to be named.

Reuters could not independently confirm his description of the letter.

The presidency did not respond to requests for comment about the July 20 letter.

A representative for Diab, whose government resigned on Monday following the blast, said the PM received the letter on July 20 and it was sent to the Supreme Defense Council for advice within 48 hours. “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.”

The prosecutor general did not respond to requests for comment.

‘DO WHAT IS NECESSARY’

The correspondence could fuel further criticism and public fury that the explosion is just the latest, if not most dramatic, example of the government negligence and corruption that have already pushed Lebanon to economic collapse.

As protests over the blast raged in Lebanon on Monday, Diab’s government resigned, though it will remain as a caretaker administration until a new cabinet is formed.

The rebuilding of Beirut alone is expected to cost up to $15 billion, in a country already effectively bankrupt with total banking system losses exceeding $100 billion.

Aoun confirmed last week that he had been informed about the material. He told reporters he had directed the secretary general of the Supreme Defense Council, an umbrella group of security and military agencies chaired by the president, to “do what is necessary”.

“(The state security service) said it is dangerous. 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 the necessary,” Aoun said.

Many questions remain over why the shipment of ammonium nitrate docked in Beirut in late 2013. Even more baffling is why such a huge stash of dangerous material, used in bombs and fertilizers, was allowed to remain there for so long.

The letter sent to Lebanon’s president and prime minister followed a string of memos and letters sent to the country’s courts over the previous six years by port, customs and security officials, repeatedly urging judges to order the removal of the ammonium nitrate from its position so close to the city center.

The General Directorate of State Security’s report seen by Reuters said many requests had been submitted, without giving an exact number. It said the port’s manifest department sent several written requests to the customs directorate up until 2016 asking them to call on a judge to order the material be re-exported immediately.

“But until now, no decision has been issued over this matter. After consulting one of our chemical specialists, the expert confirmed that this material is dangerous and is used to produce explosives,” the General Directorate of State Security report said.

HAZARDOUS MATERIAL

The road to last week’s tragedy began seven years ago, when the Rhosus, a Russian-chartered, Moldovan-flagged vessel carrying ammonium nitrate from Georgia to Mozambique, docked in Beirut to try to take on extra cargo to cover the fees for passage through the Suez Canal, according to the ship’s captain.

Port authorities impounded the Rhosus in December 2013 by judicial order 2013/1031 due to outstanding debts owed to two companies that filed claims in Beirut courts, the state security report showed.

In May 2014, the ship was deemed un-seaworthy and its cargo was unloaded in October 2014 and warehoused in what was known as Hangar 12. The ship sank near the port’s breakwater on Feb. 18, 2018, the security report showed.

Moldova lists the owner of the ship as Panama-based Briarwood Corp.  Briarwood could not immediately be reached for comment.

In February 2015, Nadim Zwain, a judge from the Summary Affairs Court, which deals with urgent issues, appointed an expert to inspect the cargo, according to the security report.

The report said the expert concluded that the material was hazardous and, through the port authorities, requested it be transferred to the army. Reuters could not independently confirm the expert’s account.

Lebanese army command rejected the request and recommended the chemicals be transferred or sold to the privately owned Lebanese Explosives Company, the state security report said.

The report did not say why the army had refused to accept the cargo. A security official told Reuters it was because they didn’t need it. The army declined to comment.

The explosives company’s management told Reuters it had not been interested in purchasing confiscated material and the firm had its own suppliers and government import licences.

From then on, customs and security officials wrote to judges roughly every six months asking for the removal of the material, according to the requests seen by Reuters.

Judges and customs officials contacted by Reuters declined to comment.

A number of customs and port officials have since been detained as part of the investigation into the blast.

‘BAD STORAGE AND BAD JUDGMENT’

In January 2020, a judge launched an official investigation after it was discovered that Hangar 12 was unguarded, had a hole in its southern wall and one of its doors dislodged, meaning the hazardous material was at risk of being stolen.

In his final report following the investigation, Prosecutor General Oweidat “gave orders immediately” to ensure hangar doors and holes were repaired and security provided, a second high-ranking security official who also requested anonymity said.

On June 4, based on those orders, state security instructed port authorities to provide guards at Hangar 12, appoint a director for the warehouse and secure all the doors and repair the hole in the southern wall, according to the state security report and security officials.

The port authorities did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

“The maintenance started and (port authorities) sent a team of Syrian workers (but) there was no one supervising them when they entered to fix the holes,” the security official said.

During the work, sparks from welding took hold and fire started to spread, the official said.

“Given that there were fireworks stored in the same hangar, after an hour a big fire was set off by the fireworks and that spread to the material that exploded when the temperature exceeded 210 degrees,” the high-ranking security official said.

The official blamed port authorities for not supervising the repair crew and for storing fireworks alongside a vast deposit of high explosives.

Reuters could not determine what happened to the workers repairing the hangar.

“Only because the hangar faces the sea, the impact of the explosion was reduced. Otherwise all of Beirut would have been destroyed,” he said. “The issue is all about negligence, irresponsibility, bad storage and bad judgment.”

(Additional reporting by Nadia El Gowely and Ghaida Ghantous; Editing by David Clarke and Giles Elgood)

Lebanese demand change after government quits over Beirut blast

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Angry Lebanese said the government’s resignation on Monday did not come close to addressing the tragedy of last week’s Beirut explosion and demanded the removal of what they see as a corrupt ruling class to blame for the country’s woes.

The blast at the Beirut port left a crater more than 100 metres across on dock nine, the French ambassador said on Twitter following a visit to the site by French forensic scientists supporting an investigation into the disaster.

A protest with the slogan “Bury the authorities first” was planned near the port, where highly explosive material stored for years detonated on Aug. 4, killing at least 171 people, injuring 6,000 and leaving hundreds of thousands homeless.

Prime Minister Hassan Diab, announcing his cabinet’s resignation, blamed endemic graft for the explosion, the biggest in Beirut’s history and which compounded a deep financial crisis that has collapsed the currency, paralyzed the banking system and sent prices soaring.

“I said before that corruption is rooted in every juncture of the state but I have discovered that corruption is greater than the state,” he said, blaming the political elite for blocking reforms.

Talks with the International Monetary Fund have stalled amid a row between the government, banks and politicians over the scale of vast financial losses.

“It does not end with the government’s resignation,” said the protest flyer circulating on social media. “There is still (President Michel) Aoun, (Parliament Speaker Nabih) Berri and the entire system.”

For many Lebanese, the explosion was the last straw in a protracted crisis over the collapse of the economy, corruption, waste and dysfunctional government.

SECTARIAN SYSTEM

The Beirut port mirrors the sectarian power system in which the same politicians have dominated the country since the 1975-90 civil war. Each faction has its quota of directors at the port, the nation’s main trade artery.

“It’s a good thing that the government resigned. But we need new blood or it won’t work,” silversmith Avedis Anserlian told Reuters in front of his demolished shop.

Diab formed his government in January with the backing of the powerful Iranian-backed Hezbollah group and its allies, more than two months after Saad Hariri, who had enjoyed the backing of the West and Gulf states, quit as premier amid anti-government protests against corruption and mismanagement.

Aoun is required to consult with parliamentary blocs on who should be the next prime minister, and is obliged to designate the candidate with the most support. The presidency has yet to say when official consultations will take place.

Forming a government amid factional rifts has been daunting in the past. Now, with growing public discontent and the crushing financial crisis, it could be difficult to find someone willing to be prime minister.

A week after the blast, residents of Beirut were picking up the pieces as search operations continued for 30 to 40 people still missing.

“Our house is destroyed and we are alone,” said Khalil Haddad. “We are trying to fix it the best we can at the moment. Let’s see, hopefully there will be aid and, the most important thing: hopefully the truth will be revealed.”

World Health Organisation spokesman Tarik Jarasevic said eight emergency international medical teams were on the ground to support overwhelmed health facilities, under strain even before the blast due to the financial crisis and a surge in COVID-19 infections.

Officials have said the blast could have caused losses of $15 billion, a bill Lebanon cannot pay.

Ihsan Mokdad, a contractor, surveyed a gutted building in Gemmayze, a district a few hundreds metres from the port.

“As the prime minister said, the corruption is bigger than the state. They’re all a bunch of crooks. I didn’t see one MP visit this area. MPs should have come here in large numbers to raise morale,” he said.

(Reporting by Beirut bureau; Additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Writing by Ghaida Ghantous; Editing by Giles Elgood)

Lebanon government resigns amid outrage over Beirut blast

By Michael Georgy

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Lebanon’s prime minister announced his government’s resignation on Monday, saying a huge explosion that devastated the capital and stirred public outrage was the result of endemic corruption.

The Aug. 4 detonation at a port warehouse of more than 2,000 tonnes of ammonium nitrate killed at least 163 people, injured more than 6,000 and destroyed swathes of the Mediterranean capital, compounding months of political and economic meltdown.

In a televised address, Prime Minister Hassan Diab said he backed calls by ordinary Lebanese for those responsible for “this crime” to be put on trial.

Diab made the announcement after the cabinet, formed in January with the backing of the powerful Iranian-backed Hezbollah group and its allies, met on Monday, with many ministers wanting to resign, according to ministerial and political sources.

Diab said on Saturday he would request early parliamentary elections.

Demonstrations broke out again in central Beirut, with some protesters hurling rocks at security forces guarding an entrance leading to the parliament building, who responded with tear gas.

“The entire regime needs to change. It will make no difference if there is a new government,” Joe Haddad, a Beirut engineer, told Reuters. “We need quick elections.”

For many ordinary Lebanese, the explosion was the last straw in a protracted crisis over the collapse of the economy, corruption, waste and dysfunctional governance, and they have taken to the streets demanding root-and-branch change.

The information and environment ministers quit on Sunday as well as several lawmakers, and the justice minister followed them out the door on Monday. Finance Minister Ghazi Wazni, a key negotiator with the IMF over a rescue plan to help Lebanon exit a financial crisis, was set to resign, a source close to him said.

Lebanon’s president had previously said explosive material was stored unsafely for years at the port. He later said the investigation would consider whether the cause was external interference as well as negligence or an accident.

ACCOUNTABILITY

The Lebanese army said on Monday that another five bodies were pulled from the rubble, raising the death toll to 163. Search and rescue operations continued.

The cabinet decided to refer the investigation of the blast to the judicial council, the highest legal authority whose rulings cannot be appealed, a ministerial source and state news agency NNA said. The council usually handles top security cases.

Anti-government protests in the past two days have been the biggest since October, when angry demonstrations spread over an economic crisis rooted in pervasive graft, mismanagement and high-level un-accountability.

An international donor conference on Sunday raised pledges worth nearly 253 million euros ($298 million) for immediate humanitarian relief, but foreign countries are demanding transparency over how the aid is used.

Some Lebanese doubt change is possible in a country where sectarian politicians have dominated since the 1975-90 conflict.

“It won’t work, it’s just the same people. It’s a mafia,” said Antoinette Baaklini, an employee of an electricity company that was demolished in the blast.

(Additional reporting by Laila Bassam and Samia Nakhoul in Beirut, Michelle Nichols in New York; Writing by Ghaida Ghantous; Editing by Mark Heinrich, William Maclean and Angus MacSwan)

Lebanon’s cabinet under pressure as ministers quit and anger grows over Beirut blast

By Michael Georgy

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Lebanon’s cabinet faced rising pressure on Monday to step down after a devastating blast that has stirred angry anti-government protests and resignations of several ministers, with the justice minister the latest to go and the finance minister set to quit.

The Aug. 4 port warehouse detonation of more than 2,000 tonnes of ammonium nitrate killed at least 158 people, injured over 6,000 and wrecked swathes of the Mediterranean city, compounding months of political and economic meltdown.

The cabinet, formed in January with the backing of the powerful Iranian-backed Hezbollah group and its allies, was due to meet on Monday, with many ministers wanting to resign, ministerial and political sources said.

The information and environment ministers quit on Sunday as well as several lawmakers, and the justice minister followed them out the door on Monday.

Finance Minister Ghazi Wazni, a key negotiator with the IMF over a rescue plan to help Lebanon exit a financial crisis, prepared his resignation letter and brought it with him to a cabinet meeting, a source close to him and local media said.

“The entire regime needs to change. It will make no difference if there is a new government,” Joe Haddad, an engineer, told Reuters. “We need quick elections.”

Prime Minister Hassan Diab said on Saturday he would request early parliamentary elections.

Lebanon’s president had previously said explosive material was stored unsafely for years at the port. He later said the investigation would consider whether the cause was external interference as well as negligence or an accident.

Beirut’s governor said many foreign workers and truck drivers remained missing and were assumed to be among the casualties, complicating efforts to identify the victims.

FED UP WITH CORRUPTION, MISMANAGEMENT

Anti-government protests in the last two days have been the biggest since October when demonstrators took to the streets over an economic crisis rooted in endemic corruption, waste and mismanagement. Protesters accused the political elite of exploiting state resources for their own benefit.

Eli Abi Hanna’s house and his car repair shop were destroyed in the blast.

“The economy was already a disaster and now I have no way of making money again,” he said. “It was easier to make money during the civil war. The politicians and the economic disaster have ruined everything.”

Some Lebanese doubt change is possible in a country where sectarian politicians have dominated since the 1975-90 conflict.

“It won’t work, it’s just the same people. It’s a mafia,” said Antoinette Baaklini, an employee of an electricity company that was demolished in the blast.

Workers picked up fallen masonry near the building where wall graffiti mocked Lebanon’s chronic electricity crisis: “Everyone else in the world has electricity while we have a donkey.”

“It will always be the same. It is just a political game, nothing will change,” said university student Marilyne Kassis.

An emergency international donor conference on Sunday raised pledges worth nearly 253 million euros ($298 million) for immediate humanitarian relief.

But foreign countries demand transparency over how the aid is used, wary of writing blank checks to a government perceived by its own people as deeply corrupt. Some are concerned about the influence of Shi’ite movement Hezbollah, which is designated as a terrorist group by the United States.

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi told a televised news conference on Monday that countries should refrain from politicizing the Beirut port blast. He called on the United States to lift sanctions against Lebanon.

Lebanese, meanwhile, are struggling to come to terms with the scale of losses. Entire neighborhoods were destroyed.

“It is very sad. We are burying people every day. Forty percent of my church have lost their businesses,” said a priest.

(Additional reporting by Beirut bureau Writing by Ghaida Ghantous; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Beirut blast a wake-up call on dangers of ammonium nitrate, experts warn

By Maayan Lubell, Rami Ayyub and Katharine Houreld

(Reuters) – The devastating explosion in Beirut should be a wake-up call for countries on the dangers of ammonium nitrate, which caused the blast, experts say.

Lebanese authorities said 2,750 tonnes of the industrial chemical had been stored for six years at Beirut port without safety measures. That stockpile exploded on Tuesday, killing more than 150 people, injuring thousands and leaving about a quarter of a million people homeless.

Commonly used in fertilizers and as an industrial explosive, ammonium nitrate is considered relatively safe if handled properly, but it has proved lethal.

In one of the world’s deadliest industrial accidents, 567 people were killed in Texas in 1947 when 2,300 tonnes of ammonium nitrate detonated aboard a ship.

“Beirut, like Texas, is a wake-up call. We should learn from these catastrophes and make sure they don’t happen again,” said Stewart Walker, of the school of Forensic, Environmental and Analytical Chemistry at Flinders University in Adelaide.

Some countries have banned ammonium nitrate as a fertilizer because it has been used by militant bomb-makers and since Tuesday’s blast, some governments have been urged to relocate stockpiles.

Chris Owen, a U.N. explosives adviser, said few countries make ammonium nitrate but many use it, often importing it by sea. Since many ports have had cities develop around them, large quantities are moving through cities on a regular basis. “If it’s managed properly, it’s no risk,” Owen said.

In terms of safety, experts say, quantity, ventilation and proximity to flammables are critical, as is distance from population centers.

Anger has been mounting in Lebanon at the authorities for allowing huge quantities of the chemical to be stored near a residential area for years in unsafe conditions.

The United Nations has issued guidelines on safe storage and transportation but regulations vary from country to country, experts said.

Global variation on regulation is a concern, said Julia Meehan, the managing editor of ICIS Fertilizers, a trade publication. “There’s no global body that looks across it, it’s country to country or regional,” said Meehan. “It can even differ from port to port.”

One expert, who asked not to be identified, said political instability was a major factor in enforcement. He cited Lebanon, Syria, Afghanistan and South American countries. “If the country is at war, or struggling with an insurgency or other problems, they have other issues to deal with,” he said.

Global data on storage is spotty, said Hans Reuvers, a German-based expert on ammonium nitrate and fertilizer technology and executive committee member at the Ammonium Nitrate/Nitric Acid Producers Study Group (ANNA).

Germany only allows 25 tonnes of pure ammonium nitrate to be stored in one place, Reuvers said. France toughened its regulations after a 2001 explosion in Toulouse killed 31 people.

“You have to store it in non-flammable bins, keep them far away from flammable materials. There are similar regulations across Europe as well as in East Asia,” Reuvers said.

GLOBAL TRADE

Worldwide trade in ammonium nitrate in 2018 was worth $2.14 billion, with Russia the leading exporter, according to the Observatory of Economic Complexity, and Brazil the largest importer.

The United States and Europe are the leading consumers of ammonium nitrates, according to London-based IHS Markit, accounting for just over half of global consumption in 2019.

Countries with large stockpiles tend to have large mining or industrial agriculture industries, said Roger Read, of the School of Chemistry at the University of New South Wales.

“Those would tend to be most large, industrialized countries – Britain, the U.S., Russia, China – as well as India and other smaller countries in Europe,” Read said.

The United States in 2019 eased chemical-safety regulations implemented after a deadly ammonium nitrate blast in 2013. The move cut costly regulations but still kept safety measures, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Rick Engler, a former member of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, said the EPA should add ammonium nitrate to a list of regulated chemicals needing increased oversight, calling present U.S. regulations “thoroughly inadequate.”

The United States does not maintain a public database on the locations of ammonium nitrate, meaning people do not know if they live near one, said Elena Craft, of the Environmental Defense Fund advocacy group.

“There are a lot of unknowns about how much of this material exists and where,” Craft said. “You don’t know the magnitude of that risk because of the lack of information that’s available.”

(Additional reporting by Caroline Stauffer, Tangi Salaun, Jonathan Saul, Gus Trompiz, Polina Devitt, Guy Faulconbridge, Josephine Mason, Stephen Farrell, Tom Polansek and Sudarshan Varadhan; Writing by Maayan Lubell; Editing by Stephen Farrell and Giles Elgood)