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Probe examining if foreign ‘rocket or bomb’ caused Beirut blast — president

Lebanese President Michel Aoun said Friday that the probe into this week’s devastating blast in Beirut was investigating the option of foreign involvement, despite many commentators saying the possibility was unlikely.

“The cause has not been determined yet. There is a possibility of external interference through a rocket or bomb or other act,” local media quoted Aoun as saying, according to the Reuters news agency.

He added that the investigation was being conducted on three levels, according to the report. “First, how the explosive material entered and was stored … second whether the explosion was a result of negligence or an accident … and third the possibility that there was external interference.”

There has been no evidence presented to suggest foreign interference behind the blast, which occurred when ammonium nitrate stored at the port ignited under unclear circumstances. Both Hezbollah and Israeli officials quickly ruled out the notion of any Israeli involvement; Israel has sent condolences and offers of assistance.

Meanwhile, rescuers combed through the rubble of Beirut port in a search for survivors watched breathlessly by relatives of the missing, after the investigation into the huge blast made its first arrests.

Shock has turned to anger in Lebanon since Tuesday’s colossal explosion killed at least 153 people and devastated swathes of the capital, with security forces firing tear gas at demonstrators who gathered near parliament late Thursday.

The revelation that a huge shipment of hazardous ammonium nitrate fertilizer had languished for years in a warehouse in the heart of the capital served as shocking proof to many Lebanese of the rot at the core of their political system.

What ignited the 2,750 tonnes of fertilizer is still unclear — officials have said work had recently begun on repairs to the warehouse, while fireworks were stored nearby.

Lebanese authorities have announced an inquiry into Tuesday’s explosion and a military prosecutor on Thursday said 16 people had been detained.

They included the port’s general manager, Hassan Koraytem, a judicial source told AFP.

The central bank also ordered an asset freeze for seven port and customs officials, an official and a banking source told AFP.

The measures did not dampen the anger in Beirut’s streets, where dozens of demonstrators scuffled with security forces late Thursday drawing a volley of tear gas.

Lebanon’s leadership was already deeply unpopular, with a wave of mass protests that erupted in October last year only abating in the face of the coronavirus pandemic.

Near the seat of the explosion, next to the carcass of the port’s giant grain silos, rescue teams from France, Germany and Italy coordinated their search efforts.

“I am waiting to hear that you have been rescued alive, my dear,” tweeted Emilie Hasrouty, whose brother is among the missing. “There wasn’t a door I didn’t knock on to know what happened to you, and now that the waiting is almost over, I am paralyzed with fear.”

Beirut has received a stream of international assistance since the blast, and on Thursday hosted French President Emmanuel Macron, who pressed Lebanese leaders for deep reform ahead of an aid conference planned in the coming days.

World leaders have joined the chorus of voices in Lebanon and the diaspora demanding an international inquiry into the cause of the devastation.

The UN children’s agency UNICEF has said nearly 80,000 children are among the 300,000 people left homeless, including many who have been separated from their families.

French rescuers said they had recovered four bodies, but had found nobody alive so far.

Relatives of the missing have been flocking to the port for days hoping to know the fate of their loved ones.

Lebanon’s hospitals, already strained by a wave of coronavirus cases and a severe economic crisis, have been unable to cope with the number of casualties and the authorities have pressed international donors to send field hospitals and medical supplies.

Relief flights from Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were set to land in Lebanon on Friday, following others from France, Kuwait, Qatar and Russia.

Header: Lebanese President Michel Aoun speaks during an address to the nation at the presidential palace, in Baabda, east of Beirut, Lebanon, November 21, 2019. (Dalati Nohra via AP)

Source: AFP via TOI