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Still Reeling From Blast, Lebanon Seeks Answers


Rescue efforts continued on Wednesday as Lebanon struggles to come to terms with a deadly pair of explosions that ripped apart the capital city of Beirut on Tuesday. Casualty figures continue to climb. The death toll now sits at 137, along with more than 5,000 injured. These figures are expected to rise.

The damage to infrastructure was severe, and Health Minister Hamad Hassan reported that up to 250,000 people were left homeless. Writing in Foreign Policy, Anchal Vohra described the experience from her home in Beirut. “Terrified and shocked, we wondered if Lebanon was at war,” she wrote.

The cause of the explosion is still unknown, but its ferocity was due largely to the presence of 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate stored nearby. Ammonium nitrate is a highly explosive material that is often used in bomb-making. President Michel Aoun echoed the public feelings of hurt and anger, saying in an address that “no words can describe the horror that has hit Beirut last night, turning it into a disaster-stricken city.”

Where did the explosives come from? In his address, Aoun confirmed that the ammonium nitrate had been stored in Beirut since 2014 after Lebanese officials seized a large shipment from a vessel trying to gain entry into the city’s port. Described as a “floating bomb,” contemporary media reports suggested that the ship was a Russian vessel with a Ukrainian crew, though the shipment’s final destination was unclear.

The cargo was never moved after its seizure, despite concerns raised by some officials. According to a report from the Guardian, inspectors warned that if it was not adequately dealt with, it could “blow up all of Beirut.” Those warnings went unheeded.

Looking for culprits. For the public, the government’s apparent negligence is the latest sign that endemic corruption renders it unresponsive to the needs of the public. As public criticism mounts, the government has moved quickly to place port officials tasked with storing and guarding the material since 2014 under house arrest, and an investigation is now underway. Writing in Foreign Policy about the negligence and corruption that led to the explosion, Oz Katerji compares the incident to the Chernobyl disaster.

Too little, too late. But the government’s punishment of port officials may not be enough to quell public anger. It has come under immense pressure since October after protesters took to the streets demanding an end to sectarian politics and corruption. The outbreak of the pandemic coupled with the collapse of the economy in recent weeks have further inflamed those feelings of discontent, and Tuesday’s accident could prove to be the tipping point, regardless of the government’s efforts.

Courtesy – Foreign Policy

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