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)

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)

Without soap or sanitizer, Syrian refugees face coronavirus threat

By Walid Saleh and Laila Bassam

AKKAR, Lebanon/BEIRUT (Reuters) – Syrian refugee Mohamed al-Bakhas is doing his best to protect his family from coronavirus by keeping their camp as clean as he can. But without enough soap or the money to buy sanitizer or face masks, there is only so much he can do.

“They gave us an awareness session and one bar of soap each, but this is not enough,” said Bakhas, 40, referring to aid workers who visited his camp in northern Lebanon this week.

“We ask for disinfectants, sanitizers for the camp. We are a big group,” said Bakhas, who fled to Lebanon from Homs in Syria eight years ago and lives with his wife and child.

Lebanon has recorded 149 cases of coronavirus. Four people have died from the virus so far.

No cases have been recorded yet among Syrian refugees, who number around 1 million of Lebanon’s population of 6 million.

As Lebanon’s public health system struggles with the outbreak, the government is worried about the virus spreading to camps for both Syrian and Palestinian refugees.

Health Minister Hamad Hassan said refugee health care was a responsibility shared by the state and United Nations agencies but he said the international community had been slow to react to the crisis.

“The international community with its U.N. agencies is a bit late in putting plans, thinking about establishing a field hospital or supporting the health ministry so that it can carry out its obligations toward its people: Lebanese society in addition to the Palestinian and Syrian brothers,” Hamad said.

The UNHCR refugee agency said efforts to fight the spread of coronavirus to refugee communities had started early on.

Awareness campaigns and the distribution of hygiene materials were underway and preparations were being made for additional hospitalization capacity that may be needed.

“We are all working around the clock,” said Lisa Abou Khaled, communications officer at UNHCR in Lebanon.

Given the high population density of the camps, Hamad noted the difficulties of maintaining personal hygiene and said the spread of coronavirus was a real danger.

Field hospitals would allow for the isolation and treatment of the infected.

“The international community and U.N. institutions must without delay prepare the ground to save these communities in case the virus spreads among them,” he said.

Lebanon was grappling with a financial and economic crisis before coronavirus hit. The government is appealing for foreign aid for its public health system.

Coronavirus poses a host of new difficulties to refugees who have been struggling in poverty for years in Lebanon.

With water mostly trucked to their camps, refugees do not have enough for regular handwashing, relief workers say.

As it currently stands, accessing health care can also be a big problem: if refugees need to go to hospital, they cannot afford the ride or pay for treatment.

“We are exploring all options including setting up additional facilities in existing hospitals or separate field hospitals…its likely that a combination of both will be needed,” Abou Khaled said.

(Additional reporting by Tom Perry and Laila Bassam in Beirut; Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

Lebanon’s crisis is ‘dangerous’, evokes start of ’75 war: defense minister

Lebanon’s crisis is ‘dangerous’, evokes start of ’75 war: defense minister
By Tom Perry and Nadine Awadalla

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Lebanon’s Defence Minister said on Thursday the country was in a “very dangerous situation” and compared street unrest of recent days to the start of 1975-90 civil war.

One month after the start of nationwide protests, Lebanon is in serious political and economic trouble with no indication of its leaders agreeing on a new government to replace the outgoing cabinet of Saad al-Hariri, who quit as premier on Oct. 29.

Despite the magnitude of the economic crisis, the biggest since the war, leaders have not yet been able to agree a new cabinet or to tackle the grievances of demonstrators who say Lebanon has been ruined by corruption and sectarian cronyism.

Though the protests have been overwhelmingly peaceful, a protester was shot dead in an altercation with soldiers on Tuesday. A funeral was held for the protester, a follower of Druze politician Walid Jumblatt, while the soldier who opened fire has been detained.

Caretaker Defence Minister Elias Bou Saab said tensions on the street and road closures “have reminded us of the civil war, what happened in 1975. And this situation is very dangerous.”

Bou Saab, a political ally of President Michel Aoun, said demonstrators had the right to protest and to be protected. But the army and security services could not tolerate violence.

Aoun said he hoped a government could be formed in the coming days to meet the demands of the protesters.

He enraged protesters in an televised interview on Tuesday evening with a comment widely understood to mean he was telling them to emigrate if they didn’t like how the country was run.

Schools, banks and many shops were closed for the third straight day. Some major routes around the capital that had been barricaded by protesters were unblocked by authorities, but the political mood remained brittle.

“WE ARE ALL IN DEEP TROUBLE”

Hani Bohsali, general manager of Bohsali Foods and president of a group representing around 50 importers, said he was among businessmen who had warned of more trouble at a meeting with Central Bank governor Riad Salameh and other top bankers.

“My message to all of them is that we are all in deep trouble, but you have to give priority to the food supply. Because the food is even more important than the fuel,” he said.

Banks, which were shut for half of October, closed again this week over staff security concerns. Most transfers out of the country have been blocked and, with U.S. dollars scarce, the pegged Lebanese pound is weakening on the black market.

So far there has been no sign of significant shortages.

Paul Kallassi, a board member of Kallassi Group, a major buyer and distributor of food, said suppliers have so far continued to ship based on “trust” even as arrears mount, a situation he said was not sustainable.

“They cannot finance millions of dollars just because they trust me,” said Kallassi.

Lebanon’s bank staff union called for employees to stay on strike until it received details of a security plan, especially on how to deal with customers demanding their cash.

A banker said that by remaining closed, banks were also avoiding the problem of depositor panic.

“You have a problem of liquidity, and there is no solution for it, unless you put in place a proper plan to solve the problem, there is no need to open the banks,” a banker said.

“You need to have a political solution, to offer a little bit of confidence, and this will eventually allow you to calm down the market and reopen normally.”

(Reporting by Nadine Awadalla, Ellen Francis, Tom Perry and Eric Knecht; Additional reporting by Reuters television, Writing by William Maclean; Editing by Giles Elgood)

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)

Seven countries issue Iran-related sanctions on 25 targets

Seven countries issue Iran-related sanctions on 25 targets
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States and six other countries imposed sanctions on Wednesday on 25 corporations, banks and people linked to Iran’s support for militant networks including Hezbollah, the U.S. Treasury Department said in a statement.

The targets were announced by the Terrorist Financing Targeting Center (TFTC) nations – which also include Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – as Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin was on a Middle East trip to finalize details of an economic development plan for the Palestinians, Jordan, Egypt and Lebanon.

All 25 targets were previously sanctioned by the United States.

“The TFTC’s action coincides with my trip to the Middle East, where I am meeting with my counterparts across the region to bolster the fight against terrorist financing,” Mnuchin said in the Treasury statement.

In Jerusalem on Monday, Mnuchin said the United States would increase economic pressure on Iran over its nuclear program, making the pledge during a Middle East trip that includes visits to U.S. allies Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Sanctions reimposed on Tehran by President Donald Trump after he withdrew the United States from world powers’ 2015 nuclear pact with Tehran have dried up Iranian oil revenues and cut Iranian banks’ ties to the financial world.

Twenty-one of the targets announced Wednesday comprised a vast network of businesses providing financial support to the Basij Resistance Force, the Treasury said.

It said shell companies and other measures were used to mask Basij ownership and control over multibillion-dollar business interests in Iran’s automotive, mining, metals, and banking industries, many of which have operate across the Middle East and Europe.

The four individuals targeted were Hezbollah-affiliated and help coordinate the group’s operations in Iraq, it said.

(Reporting by Doina Chiacu and Daphne Psaledakis; editing by Jonathan Oatis)

Trump says he will likely release Mideast peace plan after Israel elections

FILE PHOTO: A demonstrator holds a Palestinian flag and a cane during a protest against the Israeli demolitions of Palestinian homes in the village of Sur Baher which sits on either side of the Israeli barrier in East Jerusalem and the Israeli-occupied West Bank July 26, 2019. REUTERS/Mussa Qawasma

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump said on Sunday he would likely wait until after Israel’s Sept. 17 elections to release a peace plan for the region that was designed by White House senior adviser Jared Kushner.

Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, is the main architect of a proposed $50 billion economic development plan for the Palestinians, Jordan, Egypt and Lebanon that is designed to create peace in the region.

(Reporting by Ginger Gibson; Editing by Peter Cooney)

In Lebanon, a monastery brings together Christians scattered by war

A view of the Monastery of Saint Anthony of Qozhaya in the heart of the Qadisha valley, in Zgharta district, LebanonJune 23, 2019. REUTERS/Imad Creidi

By Ayat Basma

QOZHAYA, Lebanon (Reuters) – The last time Samuel Botros stepped into the Lebanese monastery of Saint Anthony of Qozhaya was in 1978. He was 24, newly married, and the country was in the grip of an all-out war. Like many of his generation, he left. It took him 41 years to return.

The 1975-90 civil war may be over in Lebanon but conflicts in nearby countries like Iraq and Syria have devastated entire communities where Christians once lived alongside Muslims. That has triggered an exodus among people of both faiths, especially among minority sects – like Botros’ Syriac Orthodox community whose roots are in early Christianity.

The monastery, which is nestled in a remote valley in the northern Lebanese mountains and dates from the fourth century, is a meeting place for Christians who have fled conflict.

“It is the war that did this to us. It is the wars that continue to leave behind destruction and force people to leave,” said Botros, visiting the monastery as part of a gathering of his community’s scout group – their first in the region since the 1950s.

The scout group’s roughly 150 members include people living in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Jordan, the Palestinian Territories and further afield. Lebanon was the only country where they could all meet easily and safely, Botros said.

In Iraq, years of conflict, most recently with Islamic State, erased much of the Christian heritage in ancient cities like Mosul and Sinjar in the north. In Syria’s civil war, some of the oldest churches in Aleppo, Homs and other cities were damaged.

Botros, now 65, is about to retire in Sweden where he made his home years ago. He is father and grandfather to children who know Lebanon only through photos.

“I would like them to visit so that when I pass, there is something to pull them back,” he said.

ANCIENT SANCTUARY

On Sundays and public holidays, the monastery’s small church, with the bell tower and facade, etched into the cliffs is full of people huddled in the pews or standing at the back of the vaulted interior.

Its patron is Saint Anthony, a monk who is believed to have lived in rural Egypt in the fourth or fifth century.

“This place has always been a shrine…we don’t even know when it started. Even when there was no development…people still came,” said Father Fadi Imad, the priest who gives sermons.

Qozhaya lies within a valley known as the Valley of Saints, or Qannoubine in ancient Syriac, part of a wider valley network called Qadisha that has a long history as a refuge for monks. At one time, Qadisha was home to hundreds of hermitages, churches, caves and monasteries. The monastery of Saint Anthony is the last surviving one.

It was an early home for Lebanon’s Christian Maronites, the first followers of the Roman Catholic church in the East.

The Maronites and sometimes the Druze, a Muslim sect, sought the sanctuary of the mountains away from the political and religious dynasties of the times with whom they did not always agree, Father Imad said.

“The inhabitants of this mountain…and they were not only Christians, came here because they were persecuted and weak,” he said.

“Qozhaya holds in its heart 1,600 years of history and it doesn’t belong to anyone, church or faith, … it belongs to the homeland,” he said.

The monastery is surrounded by forests of pine and cedar and orchards that can only be reached via a narrow, winding road.

Its grounds include a cave where visitors light candles, a museum housing the Middle East’s oldest printing press in ancient Syriac and halls for resident priests.

Visitors nowadays include foreign and Arab tourists and local residents including Muslims who sometimes come to ask for a blessing.

Father Imad said the monastery was the safest it had been in its history despite being surrounded by countries at war or suffering its aftermath.

“No one is telling us that they are coming to kill us anymore … at least in Lebanon,” he said.

Before he left, Botros and his fellows stood for a final photo outside the building with the valley behind. With their flags and scarves around their necks, they smiled and cheered as the bells rang.

“What I have seen today I will never forget for as long as I live,” Botros said.

“No matter how long it takes, the son always returns to the mother.”

(Reporting by Ayat Basma; Editing by Frances Kerry)

Tunnel crossing between Lebanon and Israel went 22 stories deep

An opening of a cross-border tunnel which Israel said was dug from Lebanon into Israel, is seen during a media tour organised by the Israeli military near Zar'it in northern Israel, June 3, 2019. REUTERS/Gil Eliyahu

ZARIT, Israel (Reuters) – The Israeli army on Monday showed the inside of a sophisticated tunnel passing deep underground from Lebanon into northern Israel, saying it was intended for use by Lebanese Hezbollah militants.

The inside of a cross-border tunnel which Israel said was dug from Lebanon into Israel, is seen during a media tour organised by the Israeli military near Zar'it in northern Israel June 3, 2019. REUTERS/Gil Eliyahu

The inside of a cross-border tunnel which Israel said was dug from Lebanon into Israel, is seen during a media tour organised by the Israeli military near Zar’it in northern Israel June 3, 2019. REUTERS/Gil Eliyahu

The tunnel was rigged with electrical wiring, fuse boxes and communications equipment. An army spokesman said it began almost a kilometer (mile) away inside Lebanon and reached depths of some 80 meters (265 feet) – about the height of a 22-storey building – as it crossed into Israel, near the town of Zarit.

It came to light earlier this year during an army operation in which a number of attack tunnels dug by Iran-backed Shi’ite Hezbollah were discovered and sealed off, the military said.

Hezbollah’s leader, in response to Israel’s tunnel operation, said in January that his group has been able to enter Israel for years. But he stopped short of acknowledging that the tunnels were the handiwork of Hezbollah, citing the heavily armed group’s policy of “ambiguity” on military matters and a desire to deny Israel a pretext to attack.

Israel and Hezbollah last fought a war in 2006. While they have at times traded blows within Syria and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, the Israel-Lebanon border has mostly been quiet.

Israeli Army Spokesperson, Lieutenant-Colonel Jonathan Conricus looks at during a media tour organised by the Israeli military inside a cross-border tunnel which Israel said was dug from Lebanon into Israel, near Zar'it in northern Israel, June 3, 2019. REUTERS/Gil Eliyahu

Israeli Army Spokesperson, Lieutenant-Colonel Jonathan Conricus looks at during a media tour organised by the Israeli military inside a cross-border tunnel which Israel said was dug from Lebanon into Israel, near Zar’it in northern Israel, June 3, 2019. REUTERS/Gil Eliyahu

Israel regards Iran as its biggest foe and Hezbollah as the main threat on its borders. It has waged an increasingly open campaign of military strikes against them both in Syria, where they have fought on the government side in the civil war.

(Reporting by Avi Ohayon; Writing by Ari Rabinovitch; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

U.S. concerned over Hezbollah’s growing role in Lebanon

FILE PHOTO: Lebanon's Hezbollah supporters chant slogans during last day of Ashura, in Beirut, Lebanon September 20, 2018. REUTERS/Aziz Taher/File Photo

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Hezbollah’s growing role in the Lebanese government worries the United States, the U.S. ambassador to Lebanon said during a meeting with Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri on Tuesday, according to the U.S. embassy.

The armed Shi’ite group, which is backed by Iran and listed as a terrorist organization by the United States, controls three of the 30 ministries in Hariri’s new cabinet, the largest number it has ever held. They include the Health Ministry, which has the fourth-largest budget in the state.

U.S. Ambassador Elizabeth Richard, speaking after the meeting, said she had been “very frank … about U.S. concern over the growing role in the cabinet of an organization that continues to maintain a militia that is not under the control of the government”, according to an embassy statement.

Richard, who did not name Hezbollah, said the group “continues to make its own national security decisions; decisions that endanger the rest of the country”.

It also “continues to violate the government’s disassociation policy by participating in armed conflict in at least three other countries”, she said. Lebanon’s official policy of disassociation is intended to keep it out of the region’s conflicts.

Hezbollah’s regional clout has expanded as it sends fighters to Mideast conflicts, including the war in neighboring Syria, where it has fought in support of President Bashar al-Assad.

Together with groups and individuals that see its arsenal as an asset to Lebanon, Hezbollah won more than 70 of the 128 seats in parliament in an election last year. Hariri, who is backed by the West, lost more than a third of his MPs.

A new unity cabinet, which took nearly nine months to put together, largely reflects the election result.

The United States has supplied the Lebanese military with more than $2.3 billion in assistance since 2005, aiming to support it as “the sole, legitimate defender” of the country. The United States is the largest provider of development, humanitarian and security assistance to Lebanon, Richard said.

“In just this last year alone, the United States provided more than $825 million in U.S. assistance and that’s an increase over the previous year.”

(Writing by Tom Perry, editing by Larry King)