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)

‘Possibility of external interference’: Lebanon’s president expands blast probe

By Michael Georgy and Ellen Francis

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Lebanon’s president said on Friday an investigation into the biggest blast in Beirut’s history would examine whether it was caused by a bomb or other external interference, as residents tried to rebuild their shattered lives after the explosion.

The search for those missing has intensified, as rescuers sifted rubble in a race to find anyone still alive after Tuesday’s blast that killed 154, smashed up a swathe of the city and sent seismic shockwaves around the region.

“The cause has not been determined yet. There is a possibility of external interference through a rocket or bomb or other act,” President Michel Aoun said in comments carried by local media and confirmed by his office.

He said it would also consider whether the explosion was due to negligence or an accident. He previously said highly explosive material had been stored in unsafe conditions for years at the port. A source has said an initial probe blamed negligence related to storage of the explosive material.

The United States has previously said it has not ruled out an attack. Israel, which has fought several wars with Lebanon, has also previously denied it had any role.

Security forces fired teargas at a furious crowd in Beirut late on Thursday, as anger boiled over at the ruling elite, who have presided over a nation that faced economic collapse even before the deadly port blast that injured 5,000 people.

The small crowd, some hurling stones, marked a return to the kind of protests that had become a feature of life in Beirut, as Lebanese watched their savings evaporate and currency disintegrate, while government decision-making floundered.

“There is no way we can rebuild this house. Where is the state?” Tony Abdou, an unemployed 60-year-old.

His family home is in Gemmayze, a district that lies a few hundred metres from the port warehouses where 2,750 tonnes of highly explosive ammonium nitrate was stored for years, a ticking time bomb near a densely populated area.

A security source and local media previously said the fire that caused the blast was ignited by warehouse welding work.

SWEEPING UP

Volunteers outside swept up debris from the streets of Beirut, which still bears scars from the 1975-1990 civil war and has often witnessed big bombings and other unrest since then.

“Do we actually have a government here?” said taxi driver Nassim Abiaad, 66, whose cab was crushed by falling building wreckage just as he was about to get into the vehicle.

“There is no way to make money anymore,” he said.

The government has promised a full investigation. State news agency NNA said 16 people were taken into custody.

But for many Lebanese, the explosion was symptomatic of years of neglect by the authorities while corruption thrived.

Officials have said the blast, whose seismic impact was recorded hundreds of miles (kilometres) away, might have caused losses amounting to $15 billion – a bill the country cannot pay when it has already defaulted on its mountain of national debt, exceeding 150% of economic output, and talks about a lifeline from the International Monetary Fund have stalled.

Hospitals, many heavily damaged as shockwaves ripped out windows and pulled down ceilings, have been overwhelmed by the number of casualties. Many were struggling to find enough foreign exchange to buy supplies before the explosion.

In the port area, rescue teams set up arc lights to work through the night in a dash to find those still missing, as families waited tensely, slowly losing hope of ever seeing loved ones again. Some victims were hurled into the sea because of the explosive force.

‘NOWHERE TO GO’

The weeping mother of one of the missing called a prime time TV program on Thursday night to plead with the authorities to find her son, Joe. He was found – dead – hours later.

Lebanese Red Cross Secretary General George Kettaneh told local radio VDL that three more bodies had been found in the search, while the health minister said on Friday the death toll had climbed to 154. Dozens are still unaccounted for.

Charbel Abreeni, who trained port employees, showed Reuters pictures on his phone of killed colleagues. He was sitting in a church where the head from the statue of the Virgin Mary had been blown off.

“I know 30 port employees who died, two of them are my close friends and a third is missing,” said the 62-year-old, whose home was wrecked in the blast. His shin was bandaged.

“I have nowhere to go except my wife’s family,” he said. “How can you survive here, the economy is zero?”

A pressing challenge for the government is ensuring the nation has enough food, after he blast destroyed the country’s only major grain silo. U.N. agencies were working to hand out food parcels and deliver medical supplies.

Offers of immediate aid have also poured in from Arab states, Western nations and beyond. But none, so far, address the bigger challenges facing a bankrupt nation.

(Reporting by Michael Georgy, Ellen Francis and Ghaida Ghantous; Writing by Ghaida Ghantous; Editing by Edmund Blair)

Macron promises to help mobilize aid for Lebanon after massive blast

By Samia Nakhoul and Ellen Francis

BEIRUT (Reuters) – French President Emmanuel Macron called for urgent support for Lebanon where he arrived on Thursday, two days after a devastating blast ripped through Beirut, killing 145 people and generating a seismic shock that was felt across the region.

Dozens are still missing after Tuesday’s blast at the port that injured 5,000 people and left up to a quarter of a million without homes fit to live in, hammering a nation already reeling from economic meltdown and a surge in coronavirus cases.

A security source said the death toll had reached 145, and officials said the figure was likely to rise.

Macron, making the first visit by a foreign leader since the explosion, promised to help organize international aid but said Lebanon’s government must implement economic reforms and crack down on corruption.

“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.”

Wearing a black tie in mourning, Macron toured the blast site and Beirut’s shattered streets where angry crowds demanded an end to a “regime” of Lebanese politicians they blame for corruption and dragging Lebanon into disaster.

“I see the emotion on your face, the sadness, the pain. This is why I’m here,” Macron told one group, promising to deliver “home truths” to Lebanon’s leaders.

The government’s failure to tackle a runaway budget, mounting debt and endemic corruption has prompted Western donors to demand reform. Gulf Arab states who once helped Lebanon have balked at bailing out a nation they say is increasingly influenced by their rival Iran and its local ally Hezbollah.

One man on the street told Macron, “We hope this aid will go to the Lebanese people not the corrupt leaders.” Another said that, while a French president had taken time to visit them, Lebanon’s president had not.

‘SCAPEGOAT’

At the port, destroyed by Tuesday’s giant mushroom cloud and fireball, families sought news about the missing, amid mounting public anger at the authorities for allowing huge quantities of highly explosive ammonium nitrate, used in making fertilizers and bombs, to be stored there for years in unsafe conditions.

The government has ordered some port officials be put under house arrest and promised a full investigation.

“They will scapegoat somebody to defer responsibility,” said Rabee Azar, a 33-year-old construction worker, speaking near the smashed remains of the port’s grain silo, surrounded by other mangled masonry and flattened buildings.

With banks in crisis, a collapsing currency and one of the world’s biggest debt burdens, Economy Minister Raoul Nehme said Lebanon had “very limited” resources to deal with the disaster, which by some estimates may have cost the nation up to $15 billion. He said the country needed foreign aid.

Offers of medical and other immediate aid have poured in, as officials have said hospitals, some heavily damaged in the blast, do not have enough beds and equipment.

Many Lebanese, who have lost jobs and watched savings evaporate in the financial crisis, say the blast is symptomatic of political cronyism and endemic corruption among the ruling elite.

‘CROOKS AND LIARS’

“Our leaders are crooks and liars. I don’t believe any investigation they will do. They destroyed the country and they’re still lying to the people. Who are they kidding?” said Jean Abi Hanna, 80, a retired port worker whose home was damaged and daughter and granddaughter injured in the blast.

An official source familiar with preliminary investigations blamed “inaction and negligence” for the blast.

A Lebanese security source said the initial blaze that sparked the explosion was caused by welding work.

Some local media reported sightings of suspected Israeli drones or planes flying in the area shortly before the explosion and some Beirut residents said they saw missiles fired.

But officials have denied the incident was caused by any attack. Israel, which has fought several wars with Lebanon, denied any involvement.

Veteran politician Walid Jumblatt, leader of Lebanon’s Druze community, called for an international investigation, saying he had “no trust” in the government to find out the truth.

The White House said the U.S. government had still not ruled out the possibility that Tuesday’s explosion was an attack.

People who felt the explosive force said they had witnessed nothing comparable in years of conflict and upheaval in Beirut, which was devastated by the 1975-1990 civil war and since then has experienced big bomb attacks, unrest and a war with Israel.

“All hell broke loose,” said Ibrahim Zoobi, who works near the port. “I saw people thrown five or six metres.”

Seismic tremors from the blast were recorded in Eilat on Israel’s Red Sea coast, about 580 km (360 miles) away.

Operations have been paralyzed at Beirut port, Lebanon’s main route for imports needed to feed a nation of more than 6 million people, forcing ships to divert to smaller ports.

(Reporting by Samia Nakhoul, Ellen Francis and Ghaida Ghantous; Writing by Dominic Evans; Editing by Edmund Blair)

Beirut reels from huge blast as death toll climbs to at least 135

By Samia Nakhoul and Ellen Francis

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Lebanese rescue teams pulled out bodies and hunted for missing in the wreckage of buildings on Wednesday as investigations blamed negligence for a massive warehouse explosion that sent a devastating blast wave across Beirut, killing at least 135.

More than 5,000 other people were injured in Tuesday’s explosion at Beirut port, Health Minister Hamad Hassan said, and up to 250,000 were left without homes fit to live in after shockwaves smashed building facades, sucked furniture out into streets and shattered windows miles inland.

Hassan said tens of people remained missing. Prime Minister Hassan Diab declared three days of mourning from Thursday.

The death toll was expected to rise from the blast, which officials blamed on a huge stockpile of highly explosive material stored for years in unsafe conditions at the port.

The explosion was the most powerful ever to rip through Beirut, a city still scarred by civil war that ended three decades ago and reeling from an economic meltdown and a surge in coronavirus infections. The blast rattled buildings on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, about 100 miles (160 km) away.

President Michel Aoun said 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate, used in fertilizers and bombs, had been stored for six years at the port without safety measures, after it was seized.

In an address to the nation during an emergency cabinet session, Aoun said: “No words can describe the horror that has hit Beirut last night, turning it into a disaster-stricken city”.

He said the government was “determined to investigate and expose what happened as soon as possible, to hold the responsible and the negligent accountable.”

An official source familiar with preliminary investigations blamed the incident on “inaction and negligence”, saying “nothing was done” by committees and judges involved in the matter to order the removal of hazardous material.

The cabinet ordered port officials involved in storing or guarding the material since 2014 to be put under house arrest, ministerial sources told Reuters. The cabinet also announced a two-week state of emergency in Beirut.

‘COLLAPSE OF LEBANON’

Ordinary Lebanese, who have lost jobs and watched savings evaporate in Lebanon’s financial crisis, blamed politicians who have overseen decades of state corruption and bad governance.

“This explosion seals the collapse of Lebanon. I really blame the ruling class,” said Hassan Zaiter, 32, a manager at the heavily damaged Le Gray Hotel in downtown Beirut.

The health minister said the death toll had climbed to 135, as the search for victims continued after shockwaves from the blast hurled some of the victims into the sea.

Relatives gathered at the cordon to Beirut port seeking information on those still missing. Many of those killed were port and custom employees, people working in the area or those driving nearby during the Tuesday evening rush hour.

The Red Cross was coordinating with the Health Ministry to set up morgues as hospitals were overwhelmed. Health officials said hospitals were struggling with the big influx of casualties and were running out of beds and equipment to attend to the injured and those in critical condition.

Beirut’s Clemenceau Medical Center was “like a slaughterhouse, blood covering the corridors and the lifts,” said Sara, one of its nurses.

Beirut Governor Marwan Abboud told Al Hadath TV that collective losses after the blast might reach $10 billion to $15 billion, saying the estimate included both direct and indirect losses related to business.

“This is the killer blow for Beirut, we are a disaster zone,” said Bilal, a man in his 60’s, in the downtown area.

Offers of international support poured in. Gulf Arab states, who in the past were major financial supporters of Lebanon but recently stepped back because of what they say is Iranian meddling, sent planes with medical equipment and other supplies.

Turkey said it would send 20 doctors to Beirut to help treat the injured, as well as medical and relief assistance, Iraq pledged fuel aid while Iran offered food and a field hospital.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said in a tweet: “We sympathize with the dear Lebanese citizens and stand by them in the painful tragedy of the Beirut port explosion…Patience in the face of this incident will be a golden leaf of honor for Lebanon.”

The United States, Britain, France and other Western nations, which have been demanding political and economic change in Lebanon, also offered aid. Germany, the Netherlands and Cyprus offered specialized search and rescue teams.

Two French planes were expected to arrive on Thursday with 55 rescuers, medical equipment and a mobile clinic. French President Emmanuel Macron will also visit Lebanon on Thursday. Other Arab and European countries are sending doctors, mobile hospitals and equipment.

‘CATASTROPHE’

For many it was a dreadful reminder of the 1975-1990 civil war that tore the nation apart and destroyed swathes of Beirut, much of which had since been rebuilt.

“This is a catastrophe for Beirut and Lebanon.” Beirut’s mayor, Jamal Itani, told Reuters while inspecting damage.

Officials did not say what caused the initial blaze at the port that set off the blast. A security source and media said it was started by welding work being carried out on a warehouse.

Taxi driver Abou Khaled said ministers “are the first that should be held accountable for this disaster. They committed a crime against the people of this nation with their negligence.”

The port district was left a tangled wreck, disabling the nation’s main route for imports needed to feed a nation of more than 6 million people.

Beirut Governor Abboud said amounts of available wheat were currently limited and he reckoned a crisis might develop without international intervention.

Lebanon had already been struggling to house and feed refugees fleeing conflict in neighboring Syria and has no trade or other ties with its only other neighbor Israel.

“On a scale, this explosion is scaled down from a nuclear bomb rather than up from a conventional bomb,” said Roland Alford, managing director of British explosive ordnance disposal firm Alford Technologies. “This is huge.”

The blast prompted the Special Tribunal for Lebanon on Wednesday to postpone its verdict in the trial over the 2005 bombing that killed ex-Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri to Aug. 18. The tribunal’s decision had been expected this Friday.

The U.N.-backed court put on trial four suspects from the Iranian-backed Shi’ite Muslim group Hezbollah. Hariri and 21 others were killed by a big truck bomb in another area of the Beirut waterfront, about 2 km (about one mile) from the port.

(Reporting by Ayat Basma, Samia Nakhoul, Ellen Francis, Ghaida Ghantous, Alaa Swilam and Omar Fahmy; Additional reporting by Reuters bureaus; Writing by Tom Perry and Dominic Evans Editing by Edmund Blair and Mark Heinrich)

Massive blast sends seismic shock across Beirut, causing thousands of casualties

By Samia Nakhoul and Yara Abi Nader

BEIRUT (Reuters) – A huge explosion in a port warehouse district near the center of Beirut killed more than 25 people, injured over 2,500 others and sent shock waves across the Lebanese capital on Tuesday, shattering windows and causing apartment balconies to collapse.

Officials expected the death toll to rise sharply as emergency workers dug through rubble across a swathe of the city to rescue people and remove the dead. It was the most powerful blast to hit Beirut in years, making the ground tremble.

“What we are witnessing is a huge catastrophe,” the head of Lebanon’s Red Cross George Kettani told broadcaster Mayadeen. “There are victims and casualties everywhere – in all the streets and areas near and far from the explosion.”

Three hours after the blast, which struck shortly after 6 p.m. (1500 GMT), a fire still blazed in the port district, casting an orange glow across the night sky as helicopters hovered and ambulance sirens sounded across the capital.

A security source said victims were being taken for treatment outside the city because Beirut hospitals were already packed with wounded. Red Cross ambulances from the north and south of the country and the Bekaa valley to the east were called in to cope with the huge casualty toll.

The blast was so big that some residents in the city, where memories of heavy shelling during the 1975 to 1990 civil war live on, thought an earthquake had struck. Dazed, weeping and, wounded, people walked through streets searching for relatives.

Lebanon’s interior minister said initial information indicated highly explosive material, seized years ago, that had been stored at the port had blown up. The minister later told Al Jadeed TV ammonium nitrate had been in storage there since 2014.

Footage of the explosion shared by residents on social media showed a column of smoke rising from the port district followed by an enormous blast, sending a ball of white smoke and fireball into the sky. Those filming the incident from high buildings 2 km (more than a mile) from the port were thrown backwards by the shock.

Lebanon’s health minister said more than 25 people had been killed and more than 2,500 were injured. Lebanon’s Red Cross said hundreds of people had been taken to hospitals.

DAY OF MOURNING

Lebanese President Michel Aoun called for an emergency meeting of the country’s Supreme Defense Council, according to the presidency’s Twitter account. Prime Minister Hassan Diab called for a day of mourning on Wednesday.

The explosion occurred three days before a U.N.-backed court is due to deliver a verdict in the trial of four suspects from the Shi’ite group Hezbollah over a 2005 bombing which killed former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri and 21 other people.

Hariri was killed in another huge blast on the waterfront, although on that occasion it was caused by a truck bomb.

It was not immediately clear what caused Tuesday’s blaze that set off the blast.

Internal Security Chief Abbas Ibrahim, touring the port area, said he would not pre-empt investigations. An Israeli official said Israel, which has fought several wars with Lebanon, had nothing to do with the blast.

The governor of Beirut port told Sky News that a team of firefighters at the scene had “disappeared” after the explosion.

“I saw a fireball and smoke billowing over Beirut. People were screaming and running, bleeding. Balconies were blown off buildings. Glass in high-rise buildings shattered and fell to the street,” said a Reuters witness.

Residents said glass was broken in houses from Raouche, on the Mediterranean city’s western tip, to Rabieh 10 km (6 miles) east). In Cyprus, a Mediterranean island 110 miles (180 km) across the sea from Beirut, residents heard the blast bangs. One resident in Nicosia said his house and window shutters shook.

“All the downtown area windows are smashed and there are wounded people walking around. It is total chaos,” a Reuters witness said.

(Reporting by Samia Nakhoul, Yara Abi Nader and Laila Bassam; Additional reporting by Dubai and Beirut bureau; Writing by Lisa Barrington, Ghaida Ghantous and Dominic Evans; Editing by Gareth Jones and Edmund Blair)

Crisis-weary Lebanon braces for Hariri tribunal verdict

By Tom Perry

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Fifteen years after a truck bomb killed Lebanon’s former Sunni leader Rafik al-Hariri in Beirut, triggering regional upheaval, a U.N.-backed court trying four suspects from Shi’ite Hezbollah delivers a verdict on Friday that could shake the country again.

The defendants, members of the powerful Iran-backed group, have been tried in absentia on charges of planning and arranging the 2005 bombing which killed the former prime minister who spearheaded Lebanon’s reconstruction after its long civil war.

Hariri’s assassination prompted mass protests in Beirut and a wave of international pressure which forced Syria to end its 29-year military presence in Lebanon after the U.N. investigator linked it with the bombing.

The assassination also inflamed political and sectarian tensions inside Lebanon and across the Middle East, particularly when investigators started probing potential Hezbollah links to the death of a politician who was backed by the West as well as Sunni Gulf Arab states opposed to Tehran.

Hezbollah, which is both a political party in Lebanon’s government and a heavily armed guerrilla group, denies any role in Hariri’s killing and dismisses the Netherlands-based tribunal as politicized.

Few expect the defendants to be handed over if convicted, but any guilty verdicts could pose a problem to the government and deepen rifts unresolved since the 1975-1990 civil war. The country is already reeling from the worst economic crisis in decades and a deepening COVID-19 outbreak.

Hezbollah has been designated a terrorist organization by the United States, Canada, Germany, Britain, Argentina and Honduras as well as the Sunni Muslim Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which includes Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Kuwait. The EU classifies Hezbollah’s military wing as a terrorist group, but not its political wing.

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

“We… look forward to August 7 being a day of truth and justice for Lebanon and a day of punishment for the criminals,” Saad Hariri said last week.

“AVOIDING STRIFE”

Hariri stepped down as prime minister in October after failing to address demands of protesters demonstrating against years of corruption by a ruling elite which has driven Lebanon to its current financial crisis.

His successor Hassan Diab, backed by Hezbollah and its allies, says the country must avoid further turmoil over the tribunal verdicts. “Confronting strife is a priority,” Diab tweeted last week.

In the Feb. 14, 2005 bombing, a truck laden with 3,000 kg of high-grade explosives blew up as Rafik Hariri’s motorcade passed Beirut’s waterfront Saint Georges hotel, killing him and 21 other people and leaving a huge crater in the road.

Salim Jamil Ayyash, Hassan Habib Merhi, Assad Hassan Sabra and Hussein Hassan Oneissi are charged with conspiracy to commit a terrorist attack. Ayyash is charged with committing a terrorist act, homicide and attempted homicide.

Prosecutors said data culled from telephone networks showed that the defendants called each other from dozens of mobile phones to monitor Hariri in the months before the attack and to coordinate their movements on the day itself.

The men have not been seen in public for years.

Hezbollah has often questioned the tribunal’s integrity and neutrality, saying its work had been tainted by false witnesses and reliance on telephone records that Israeli spies arrested in Lebanon could have manipulated.

“It is Hezbollah’s right to have doubts about the court, which transformed into political score-settling far from the truth,” said Salem Zahran, an analyst with links to Hezbollah leaders. Any verdict “has no value” to the group, he said.

Nabil Boumonsef, deputy editor-in-chief of Lebanon’s An-Nahar newspaper, said neither Saad Hariri nor Hezbollah chief Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah wanted to escalate tensions.

But he expected Hariri to call for the defendants to be handed over if found guilty – which would leave Hezbollah on the defensive politically despite its military strength. If the group refused to surrender them it could put the government which it helped put together in difficulty.

As it tries to tackle the deep economic crisis, a guilty verdict could also jeopardise Lebanon’s efforts, which have been supported by France, to win international aid.

“France… will have to take a position on Hezbollah after the verdict comes out on Aug. 7,” Boumonsef said.

France hosted a donor meeting in Paris in 2018 when Beirut won more than $11 billion in pledges for infrastructure investment. Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told Lebanese leaders in Beirut last month that Paris was ready to mobilize international support if Lebanon moved ahead with reform.

(Writing by Dominic Evans; editing by Philippa Fletcher)

As protests rock Baghdad and Beirut, Iran digs in

As protests rock Baghdad and Beirut, Iran digs in
BEIRUT/BAGHDAD (Reuters) – As governments in Iraq and Lebanon stagger and stumble under huge waves of popular protest, powerful factions loyal to Iran are pushing to quash political upheaval which challenges Tehran’s entrenched influence in both countries.

Lebanon’s Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri has resigned and the government of Iraq’s Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi has been pushed to the brink of collapse.

Both governments have enjoyed backing from the West. But they have also relied on the support of political parties affiliated with powerful Iran-backed Shi’ite armed groups, keeping allies of Tehran in key posts.

That reflects the relentless rise of Iranian influence among Shi’ite communities across the Middle East, since Tehran formed the militant group Hezbollah in Lebanon in 1982 and after Saddam Hussein was toppled in Iraq in 2003.

Both Iraq and Lebanon have government systems designed to end sectarian conflict by guaranteeing a share of power to parties that represent different communities. In both countries, leading Shi’ite groups are closely associated with Iran, and have held on to weapons outside the official security forces.

Protesters are now challenging those power structures, which Iraqis and Lebanese blame for corruption, the dire state of public services and the squandering of national wealth, which Iraq brings in from oil and Lebanon from foreign backing.

WHO IS BEHIND THE PROTESTS?

Unusually in both countries where sectarian parties have previously dominated politics, most protesters are not linked to organized movements. In both countries they have called for the kind of sweeping change seen in the 2011 Arab uprisings, which brought down four Arab leaders but bypassed Lebanon and Iraq.

In Lebanon, demonstrations flared in late September against bad economic conditions as the country grappled with a deepening financial crisis. Nationwide protests broke out two weeks later against government plans to raise a new tax on calls using popular mobile phone software such as WhatsApp.

In Iraq, demonstrations began in Baghdad and quickly spread to the southern Shi’ite heartland.

WHAT IS AT STAKE?

In Iraq, the protests have taken place on a scale unseen since Saddam’s overthrow, with sweeping demands for change. The authorities have responded with a violent crackdown which left more than 250 people dead, many killed by snipers on rooftops firing into crowds.

“The fact that you were seeing that level of mobilization makes the protests more dangerous in the perception of the political elite,” said Renad Mansour, Iraq analyst at London-based Chatham House.

The mainly Iran-backed militias view the popular protests as an existential threat to that political order, Mansour said.

In Lebanon, the demonstrations come at a time of economic crisis widely seen as the worst since the 1975-1990 civil war. If Hariri’s resignation prolongs the political paralysis it will jeopardize prospects of rescue funding from Western and Gulf Arab governments.

HOW HAVE IRAN’S ALLIES RESPONDED?

Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah initially addressed the Lebanon protesters sympathetically, echoing Hariri’s conciliatory stance, before changing tone and accusing foreign powers of instigating the unrest. People loyal to Hezbollah and the Shi’ite movement Amal attacked and destroyed a protest camp in Beirut.

Hariri announced his resignation shortly afterwards despite pressure from Hezbollah, widely seen as the most powerful player in Lebanon, not to concede to the protests.

In the absence of an obvious replacement for Hariri, Hezbollah, which is under U.S. sanctions, faces a predicament. Although Hezbollah and its allies have a majority in parliament, they cannot form a government on their own because they would face international isolation, said Nabil Boumonsef, a commentator with Lebanon’s an-Nahar newspaper.

“It would be the quickest recipe for financial collapse. The whole world will be closed to them.”

In Baghdad, Abdul Mahdi’s government was saved for now after apparent Iranian intervention. Reuters reported this week that Qassem Soleimani, the head of the elite Quds force of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, which sponsors Tehran’s allies abroad, flew to Baghdad for a secret meeting at which a powerful Shi’ite party agreed to keep the prime minister in office.

Iraqi security officials have said that snipers who shot down from rooftops at crowds last month were deployed by Iran-backed militias.

WHAT ARE THE LIMITS OF IRANIAN INFLUENCE?

While Shi’ite militia forces project unambiguous power, Iran’s political weight is often deployed behind the scenes.

In Lebanon, a longstanding accord on power-sharing means no single confession can dominate state institutions. For all its prominence, Hezbollah picked only three ministers in Hariri’s last cabinet.

“A winner-takes-all mentality just does not work in Lebanon,” said Nadim Houry, executive director of the Arab Reform Initiative, who said Hezbollah may have miscalculated by employing “scare tactics” against the protesters.

“This goes against the grain of Lebanese politics. They are going to have to compromise.”

In Iraq too “Iran has more influence than any other country … but it doesn’t have control over what happens there,” says Crisis Group’s Iran project director Ali Vaez.

WHAT IS THE INTERNATIONAL RESPONSE?

In Iraq it is too early to say. Tehran’s main rival, the United States, has so far kept mostly quiet on the protests, probably waiting to see the outcome.

In Lebanon, which urgently needs outside funding to keep its economy afloat, Tehran’s international foes have used their financial clout to challenge its influence more directly. Before he quit, Hariri failed to convince foreign donors to release $11 billion in aid pledged last year, in part because of Hezbollah’s prominence.

Wealthy Sunni Gulf Arab states, engaged in a proxy conflict with Iran across the region, had long funded Beirut, but Saudi Arabia cut back support sharply three years ago, saying Hezbollah had “hijacked” the Lebanese state.

Gulf Arab countries and the United States have coordinated moves against Iranian-linked targets with sanctions on 25 corporations, banks and individuals linked to Iran’s support for militant networks including Hezbollah.

“Gulf Arab states are bound by sanctions. Hezbollah are an integral part of the (Lebanese) government,” a Gulf source said. “Nobody has given up on Lebanon” but “the system is broken… Improvements need to be seen on several fronts, including fiscal discipline.”

Two U.S. officials said this week that President Donald Trump’s administration is withholding $105 million in security aid for Lebanon.

(Reporting by Reuters correspondents in Baghdad, Beirut and Dubai; writing by Dominic Evans; Editing by Samia Nakhoul and Peter Graff)

Global protests gaining attention in financial markets

Global protests gaining attention in financial markets
By Marc Jones and Mike Dolan

LONDON (Reuters) – An alarming spread of street protests and civil unrest across the world in recent weeks looms large on the radar of financial markets, with investors wary the resulting pressures on stretched government finances will be one of many consequences.

Money managers and risk analysts seeking a common thread between often unconnected sources of popular anger – in Hong Kong, Beirut, Cairo, Santiago and beyond – reckon the unrest is particularly worrying following years of modest global economic growth and relatively low joblessness.

If, as many fear, the world is slipping back into its first recession in more than a decade, then the root causes of restive streets will only deepen and force embattled governments to loosen purse strings further to fund better employment, education, healthcare and other services to placate them.

Forced fiscal loosening in a world already swamped with debt and heading into another downturn may unnerve creditors and bond holders, especially those holding government debt as an insurance against recession and a haven from volatility.

“Protests per se are unpredictable for investors by definition and fit a pattern of rising political risks that have affected market perceptions in almost all geographies,” said Standard Chartered Bank strategist Philippe Dauba-Pantanacce.

“Investors will get more nervous when they see that a country’s IMF package or investment promises are conditioned on fiscal consolidation and that the first austerity measures are followed by massive protests.”

More broadly popular pushback against debt reduction and austerity raises serious questions about how still-mushrooming debt loads can be sustained, even after the massive central bank intervention to underwrite it in recent years.

Many also fear the feedback loop.

According to the International Monetary Fund this month, a global downturn half as severe as the one spurred by the last financial crisis in 2007-9 would result in $19 trillion of corporate debt being considered “at risk” – defined as debt from firms whose earnings would not cover the cost of their interest payments let alone pay off the original debt.

Rising bankruptcies at so-called “zombie” firms would, in turn, risk spurring rising job losses and yet more unrest.

Marc Ostwald, global strategist at ADM Investor Services, said he saw many of the protests as ‘straws that break the camel’s back’ – tipping points in a broad swathe of long-standing complaints about inequality, corruption and oppression, variations on the broader themes of populism and anti-globalization.

But Ostwald said there was a worry for financial markets who have surfed rising debt piles for years thanks to central bank money printing and bond buying.

“At some point the smothering impact of QE (quantitative easing) will run its course,” Ostwald said.

“And as many of the zombie companies then go to the wall, so governments will face rising unemployment and desperately need to borrow money to prop up their economies – particularly as social unrest rises, as we are witnessing.”

Of the dozens of protest movements that have emerged in recent years, here are some of the most prominent ones.

HONG KONG

Hong Kong has been battered by five months of often violent protests after the city state tried to bring in legislation that would have allowed extraditions to mainland China. The plan has been formally withdrawn but it is unlikely to end the unrest as it meets only one of five demands pro-democracy protesters have.

On Tuesday, authorities announced HK$2 billion ($255 million) relief measures for the city’s economy, particularly in its transport, tourism and retail industries. It followed a more sizeable HK$19.1 billion ($2.4 billion) package in August to support the underprivileged and businesses. Hong Kong’s Financial Secretary has also said more assistance will be given if needed.

The Hang Seng, one of Asia’s most prominent share markets, is down 12% since the protests started and although it has been recovered some ground over the last two months, it has continued to lag other major markets.

LEBANON

Hundreds of thousands of people have been flooding the streets for nearly two weeks, furious at a political class they accuse of pushing the economy to the point of collapse.

Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri announced on Monday a symbolic halving of the salaries of ministers and lawmakers, as well as steps toward implementing long-delayed measures vital to fixing the finances of the heavily indebted state.

Markets are increasingly worried it will all end in default. The government’s bonds are now selling at a 40% discount and Credit Default Swaps, which investor use as insurance against those risks, have soared.

IRAQ

Similar factors were behind deadly civil unrest in Iraq which flared in early October. More than 100 people died in violent protests across a country where many Iraqis, especially young people, felt they had seen few economic benefits since Islamic State militants were defeated in 2017.

The government responded with a 17-point plan to increase subsidized housing for the poor, stipends for the unemployed and training programs and small loans initiatives for unemployed youth.

 

EXTINCTION REBELLION

This London-bred movement is pushing for political, economic and social changes to avert the worst devastation of climate change. XR protesters began blockading streets and occupying prominent public spaces late last year, and following 11 days of back-to-back protests in April the UK government symbolically declared a climate “emergency”.

The movement is developing alongside the growing FridaysForFuture led by Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg which sees school children boycott lessons on Fridays.

It has been particularly strong in Germany and the government there recently launched the ‘Gruene Null’ or ‘Green Zero’ policy which specifies that any spending that pushes the government’s budget into deficit must be on climate-focused investments.

Incoming European Commission chief, Ursula von der Leyen, has also introduced an ambitious “European Green Deal” which would include the support of 1 trillion euros ($1.11 trillion) in sustainable investments across the bloc.

Amazon <AMZN.O> Chief Executive Officer Jeff Bezos last month pledged to make the largest U.S. e-commerce company net carbon neutral by 2040.

CHILE

At least 15 people have died in Chile’s protests which started over a hike in public transport costs but have grown to reflect simmering anger over intense economic inequality as well as costly health, education and pension systems seen by many as inadequate.

Chile’s President Sebastian Pinera announced an ambitious raft of measures on Tuesday aimed at quelling the unrest, including with a guaranteed minimum wage, a hike in the state pension offering and the stabilization of electricity costs.

ECUADOR

Violent protests at the start of October forced Ecuadorean President Lenin Moreno to scrap his own law to cut expensive fuel subsidies that have been in place for four decades.

The government had estimated the cuts would have freed up nearly $1.5 billion per year in the government budget, helping to shrink the fiscal deficit as part of a $4.2 billion IMF loan deal Moreno had signed.

BOLIVIA

Mass protests and marches broke out in Bolivia this week after the opposition said counting in the country’s presidential election at the weekend was rigged in favor of current leader Evo Morales.

The unrest – already the severest test of Morales’ rule since he came to power in 2006 – could spread if his declaration of outright victory is confirmed, after monitors, foreign governments and the opposition called for a second-round vote.

EGYPT

Protests against President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi broke out in Cairo and other cities in September following online calls for demonstrations against alleged government corruption, as well as recent austerity-focused measures.

Protests are rare under the former army chief and about 3,400 people have been arrested since the protests began, including about 300 who have since been released, according to the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms, an independent body.

The country’s main stock market <.EGX30> dropped 10% over three days as the protests kicked off although it has since recovered over half of that ground.

FRANCE

The Gilets Jaunes movement named after the fluorescent yellow safety vests that all French motorists must carry began a year ago to oppose fuel tax increases, but quickly morphed into a broader backlash against President Emmanuel Macron’s government, rising economic inequality and climate change.

Macron swiftly reversed the tax hikes and announced a swathe of other measures worth more than 10 billion euros ($11.3 billion) to boost the purchasing power of lower-income voters. That was followed up with another 5 billion euro package of tax cuts in April.

ARAB SPRING

Beginning in late 2010, anti-government protests roiled Tunisia. By early 2011 they had spread into what became known as the Arab Spring wave of protests and uprisings which ended up toppling not only Tunisia’s leader but Egypt, Libya, and Yemen’s too. The Arab Spring uprisings in Syria developed into a civil war that continues to be waged today.

ETHIOPIA

A total of 16 people have been killed in at least four cities since fierce clashes broke out on Wednesday against the reformist policies of Nobel Prize-winning Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed.

The greater freedoms that those policies bring have unleashed long-repressed tensions between Ethiopia’s many ethnic groups as local politicians claim more resources, power and land for their own regions. Ethiopia is due to hold elections next year.

(Reporting by Marc Jones and Mike Dolan, additional reporting by Karin Strohecker in London and Mitra Taj in La Paz; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)