Lebanon has arrested a number of officials from the Port of Beirut after launching an investigation into Tuesday’s massive blast, which levelled the Mediterranean seaport.
The explosion, which has killed at least 135 people and injured more than 4,000, is believed to have been caused by 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate stored unsafely in a warehouse at the port.
President Michel Aoun said that port officials would face "the harshest punishment" if they are found to be responsible for the blast. House arrest will apply to all port officials "who have handled the affairs of storing [the] ammonium nitrate, guarding it and handling its paperwork" since June 2014, according to Information Minister Manal Abdel Samad.
According to records, a Moldovan-flagged cargo vessel called the Rhosus arrived at the port in 2013 after running into technical issues on its journey from Georgia and was later impounded. The highly explosive cargo was moved to a warehouse after it was abandoned by its owners.
Badri Daher, customs chief, claimed that the department had asked for the dangerous chemical to be removed but added “this did not happen”. He said: "We leave it to the experts to determine the reasons.”
Both the heads of the Port of Beirut and the customs authority told local reporters that they had asked the judiciary in writing several times for the chemical to be exported or sold. But they claimed that judges never responded.
Hassan Koraytem, the port’s general manager, told Lebanese TV station OTV that officials had been aware that the chemicals were dangerous when a law court ordered them to be stored at the port, “but not to this degree”.
A blame game has ensued as public anger mounts against authorities for what is being viewed as mismanagement and negligence.
Port and customs officials have been involved in scandals in the past, including the misuse of public money.
Lebanon is a country already facing massive economic problems worsened by a coronavirus pandemic, which has killed 68 people. Many people have lost their jobs and widespread food insecurity is expected in a country which imports most of its food by sea.