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Lebanese government resigns in wake of explosion that killed 220 and injured over 6,000

11 August 2020

The Lebanese government resigned on August 10 following the deadly August 4 blast at the Port of Beirut which has so far killed 220 people and injured over 6,000. A series of protests led to Prime Minister Hassan Diab resigning along with his entire cabinet. Meanwhile, details have emerged about the events leading up to the blast, including how Diab and Lebanon's President were warned in July about the possibility of a devastating explosion at the port.

Image: Shutterstock
Image: Shutterstock

Despite the government’s resignation, protests continued for a third consecutive night into August 11 with demonstrators clashing with police outside the parliament building in Beirut. Prime Minister Diab, whose government will remain in a caretaker role until a new administration is established, blamed the August 4 blast on years of corruption and said that he was not responsible for the disaster. 

Over 100 people remain missing since the explosion which was caused by the ignition of 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate stored in Beirut’s port. Around 300,000 people have been left homeless.

Quoting documents and senior security sources, Reuters news agency reports that Lebanese security officials warned the Prime Minister and President just two weeks before the explosion that the large quantity of ammonium nitrate stored at the port posed a security risk and could destroy the capital if it exploded. The ammonium nitrate had been kept at the port for the last six years after being confiscated from a vessel in December 2013. 

Reuters says that a state security report by the General Directorate of State Security on the events preceding the August 4 blast references a letter sent to President Michel Aoun and Prime Minister Diab in July. The letter is said to have included the findings of a judicial investigation from January 2020 which said the ammonium nitrate needed to be secured and stored safely with immediate effect.

The publication of the details surrounding the letter and the report on the events leading up to the August 4 blast are likely to fuel further protests against government negligence and corruption. 

After the government’s resignation, a spokesperson for the Prime Minister Diab said that the cabinet had only received the state security report 14 days before the blast and acted on it immediately, whereas the previous administration “had years and did nothing.” 

There are still many unanswered questions about the 2,750 tonnes of ammonia nitrate which caused the fatal explosion. Reuters reports that the letter sent to the President and Prime Minister included details about memos sent by port, customs, and security officials urging judges to order the removal of the vast amount of hazardous material away from the port and city centre. Despite this, nothing was done, and the chemicals remained in unsafe and insecure storage at the port.

The ammonium nitrate was confiscated from a Russian-chartered, Moldovan-flagged vessel called the Rhosus in December 2013. Reuters says that the ship had docked in Beirut in order to take on further cargo in order to afford the fees needed to pass through the Suez Canal. However, the Rhosus was impounded due to unpaid debts owed to two companies which had filed claims in Lebanese courts.

The Rhosus was deemed unsafe in 2014 and sank offshore Beirut in 2018. The state security report, which Reuters quotes, says that a judge appointed an expert in 2015 to inspect the cargo. The expert deemed the cargo hazardous and recommended that it be taken away by the army, however the army refused to take the cargo for unknown reasons. Reuters says that from this point on, various customs and security officials wrote to judges every six months or so asking for the chemicals to be removed. 

Image: Shutterstock
Image: Shutterstock

An investigation was launched in January 2020 after it was discovered that the hangar where the ammonium nitrate was being stored had a dislodged door and a hole in one wall, increasing the risk of theft. The investigation resulted in an immediate order for the door and hole to be fixed. As a result, workers were sent to the hangar where welding work caused a fire to start on August 4. The fire caused an initial explosion of fireworks which were being kept in the same warehouse. This fire and explosion then caused the much larger and deadlier second explosion. Reuters reports that the repair crew was not supervised while conducting the maintenance work.

On August 6, 16 staff members at the Port of Beirut were detained after the committee investigating the explosion was given four days to determine those responsible. Those detained included port and customs officials as well as maintenance workers and their managers. 

The rebuilding of Beirut is expected to cost up to $15 billion, Reuters reports, although the country is effectively bankrupt with total banking system losses exceeding $100 billion. The economic situation has been worsened in recent months due to coronavirus and there are fears a food shortage could occur after the blast destroyed a vital grain elevator at the port. 

The UN’s World Food Programme is sending 50,000 tonnes of wheat flour to Beirut to help stabilise Lebanon's food supplies and prevent a food shortage.

Mapping the Beirut blast damage

NASA's Advanced Rapid Imaging and Analysis (ARIA) team, in collaboration with the Earth Observatory of Singapore, has used satellite-derived synthetic aperture radar data to map the likely extent of damage from the August 4 explosion. Synthetic aperture radar data from space shows ground surface changes from before and after a major event like an earthquake. In this case, it has been used to show the result of the explosion.

On the map below, dark red pixels – like those present at and around the Port of Beirut – represent the most severe damage. Areas in orange are moderately damaged and areas in yellow are likely to have sustained somewhat less damage. Each coloured pixel represents an area of 30 metres (33 yards).

The map contains modified Copernicus Sentinel data processed by ESA (European Space Agency) and analysed by ARIA team scientists at NASA JPL, Caltech, and Earth Observatory of Singapore. Located in Pasadena, California, Caltech manages JPL for NASA.

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