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)

Turkey warns Greek Cypriots, oil companies against offshore energy grab

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan makes a speech at the 22nd World Petroleum Congress in Istanbul, Turkey, July 10, 2017.

By Ece Toksabay and David Dolan

ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Turkey warned Greek Cypriots on Friday not to make a grab for energy reserves around the divided island and President Tayyip Erdogan told oil companies to be careful they did not lose a “friend” by joining in.

Talks to reunite the ethnic Greek and Turkish sides of Cyprus collapsed in anger and recrimination in the early hours of Friday, ending a process many saw as the most promising in generations to heal decades of conflict.

Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim, speaking at an energy conference in Istanbul, called on Greek Cypriots to refrain from taking “one-sided measures” after talks failed.

It was a clear reference to plans by the internationally recognized Greek Cypriot government to exploit potential hydrocarbon deposits around the Mediterranean island.

The government has already issues a maritime advisory for a natural gas drill from July to October.

“We want to remind once again that the hydrocarbon resources around Cyprus belongs to both sides,” Yildirim said.

“The Greek Cypriot leadership must seek a constructive approach rather than setting an obstacle for peace. We advise that they refrain from unilateral measures in the east Mediterranean.”

Erdogan, speaking later at the same conference, went further, with a not-very-veiled threat to oil companies who may be tempted to participate in the Greek Cypriots’ plans.

“It is impossible to appreciate that some energy companies are acting with, and becoming part of some irresponsible measures taken by, Greek Cypriots,” Erdogan said. “I want to remind them that they could lose a friend like Turkey.”

 

NEW TENSIONS

Greek Cypriots say it is its sovereign right to explore for hydrocarbons, and it has signed maritime delimitation agreements with most of its neighbors.

Asked on Sunday if there was any pressure on Cyprus regarding the drilling schedule, Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades said: “Nothing (pressure) is being applied, nor will there be a postponement.”

A number of energy companies have already beaten a path to the island.

Italy’s ENI, ExxonMobil, France’s Total and Korea’s KOGAS have won offshore exploration licenses

A drilling ship contracted by Total, the West Capella, is already heading for Cyprus.

“What we expect from anyone who takes sides in the developments in Cyprus is that they should refrain from steps that might pave the way for new tensions in the region,” Erdogan said.

Asked by Reuters at the petroleum conference whether the company was worried that drilling could alienate Turkey, Arnaud Breuillac, Total’s president of exploration and production, said the company had “no concerns”.

The issue has risen to the fore again because of the failure of the latest round of reunification talks, which were started in part to try to solve the energy issue.

A week of United Nations-mediated talks in the Swiss Alps culminated in a “yelling and drama” session, leaving the conflict unresolved.

Cyprus’s Greek and Turkish Cypriots have lived estranged since a Turkish invasion in 1974 triggered by a brief Greek- inspired coup.

Turkey has 30,000 troops stationed in northern Cyprus and their status in any post-settlement peace deal proved to be the undoing of a process one diplomat lamented came “so, so close” to succeeding.

Cyprus talks have collapsed before, most spectacularly in 2004, when Greek Cypriots rejected a U.N. reunification blueprint in a referendum while Turkish Cypriots backed it. It took several years for the United Nations to re-engage.

 

(Reporting by Ece Toksabay; Written by Jeremy Gaunt and David Dolan; Additional reporting by Michele Kambas in Athens; Editing by Larry King)

 

Good atmosphere but nothing new in EU talks with Erdogan, sources say

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan delivers a speech during a graduation ceremony at an Imam Hatip religious school association in Istanbul, Turkey, May 26, 2017.

By Gabriela Baczynska

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – Talks last week between the heads of European Union institutions and Turkey’s president, Tayyip Erdogan, were held in a “good atmosphere” but produced no new agreements, officials in Brussels said, playing down comments by the Turkish leader.

Tensions between Turkey and the EU run high over rights and security issues, but the bloc depends on the help of NATO ally Ankara on migration and the conflict in Syria.

After meeting European Council President Donald Tusk and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker last week in Brussels, Erdogan was quoted as saying he had been presented with a new 12-month timetable for renewing ties.

But senior EU officials voiced caution and some scepticism, saying no formal deadlines were set. The EU has a list of mid- and high-level meetings it hopes to hold with Turkey this year, they said, but any improvement in bilateral ties would depend on Erdogan’s resolving at least some of many points of contention.

They include the EU’s worry that Turkey’s anti-terror laws are too broad and used to persecute Erdogan critics, as demonstrated in Ankara’s sweeping security crackdown following a botched coup almost a year ago.

Other concerns relate to the treatment of the Kurds, the media and academics, as well as Erdogan moving to assume even more powers following an April referendum.

The pre-referendum campaign produced new spats with EU members Germany and the Netherlands, whose authorities Erdogan likened to Nazis when they had prevented Turkish politicians from campaigning in their countries.

Despite the often harsh rhetoric, senior EU officials said the atmosphere of the meeting was “good” and “constructive”.

“It was definitely not hostile, but both sides pretty much restated their well-known positions,” one of the sources said.

Turkey complains about slow progress in its stalled EU accession talks, discussions on visa-free travel for Turks to the EU and disbursement of EU funds to Syrian refugees living in Turkey.

The bloc says Erdogan must first address concerns over human rights and rule of law, and should work with the Council of Europe – a European rights watchdog of which Turkey is a member – on that..

The EU says progress in talks over reuniting the ethnically split Cyprus is also key to unlocking other area, including ideas to beef up an existing customs union between Turkey and the EU.

Erdogan has suggested Turkey could hold a referendum on continuing EU accession talks, and possibly another on reinstating the death penalty. Restoring capital punishment would end Turkey’s bid to join the EU.

EU leaders will discuss their ties and especially their cooperation with Turkey on migration when in Brussels on June 22-23. Calls from the European Parliament to formally halt Turkey’s accession talks have so far not reached critical mass.

“We have no choice,” one of the sources said when asked if the EU was looking to working more with Turkey after the top-level talks with Erdogan.

(Reporting by Gabriela Baczynska, editing by Larry King)

Meteorite whizzes past Cyprus and explodes, lighting up night sky

ATHENS (Reuters) – A suspected meteorite did a close fly-by over Cyprus early on Friday, sending people into consternation over a blitz of bright lights which appeared in the night sky coupled with large bangs.

“It had a 45 degree tilt and a bang was heard as it passed over Cyprus,” said Ioannis Fakas, the honorary chairman of the Cyprus astronomical society.

People living in the mountainous Troodos range reported green-white glows in the sky at around one in the morning, then large blasts, police said. Some reported the ground shook.

Parts of the meteorite were thought to have fallen into the sea north of Cyprus, Fakas told state TV.

“It wouldn’t have weighed any more than a few kilos,” he said. “When it crossed Cyprus it exploded,” he told the Cyprus Broadcasting Corporation.

(Reporting By Michele Kambas Editing by Jeremy Gaunt)

Cyprus Government Starts Emergency Efforts

Eurozone finance ministers were holding unscheduled meetings trying to find a “plan B” for Cyprus as the country’s financial system is rapidly collapsing beyond their control.

The country’s banks have been shut until next week because of a run on savings accounts. Rumors that the European Union and the International Monetary Fund would require all Cyprus account holders to sacrifice a portion of their savings to obtain a bailout of the nation. Continue reading

Cyprus Officials Vote Against Banking Bailout And Account Seizure

Admit outcry from citizens, the government of Cyprus has unanimously rejected a bailout measure from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund that would require seizing funds from every bank account in the nation.

After the vote the European Central Bank said they would move to assist Cyprus in any way they can under the currently approved banking systems. Continue reading