Anger has erupted in Beirut over the massive port explosion as a paper trail emerges suggesting a store of highly explosive material had been the subject of repeated warnings and had been described as a “floating bomb”.
The blast on Tuesday evening killed at least 135 people, injured more than 5,000 and damaged up to 300,000 homes in Lebanon’s capital, while losses are estimated to be between $10 billion to $15 billion.
Lebanese rescue teams continue to pulled out bodies and hunt for missing people as international rescue workers arrive in the city to help with the search.
Public anger mounted against the ruling elite that is being blamed for the chronic mismanagement and carelessness that led to the disaster.
Demonstrators in downtown Beirut attacked the convoy of former Lebanese prime minister Saad Hariri and brawled with his bodyguards in the most overt display of wider anger that is building against Lebanese politicians in the wake of the disaster.
Early investigations blamed negligence for the explosion and have begun focussing on a supply of 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate, used in fertilisers and bombs, which was stored for six years at the port after it was seized.
As recently as six months ago, officials inspecting the consignment warned that if it was not moved it would “blow up all of Beirut”.
An official letter circulating online showed the head of the customs department had warned repeatedly over the years that the huge stockpile of ammonium nitrate stored in the port was a danger and had asked judicial officials for a ruling on a way to remove it.
The 2017 letter could not be immediately confirmed, but state prosecutor Ghassan Oueidat ordered security agencies to start an immediate investigation into all letters related to the materials stored at the port, as well as lists of those in charge of maintenance, storage and protection of the hangar.
In the letter, the customs chief warned of the “dangers if the materials remain where they are, affecting the safety of (port) employees” and asked the judge for guidance.
He said five similar letters were sent in 2014, 2015 and 2016. The letter proposes the material be exported or sold to a Lebanese explosives company. It is not known if there was a response.
Badri Daher, the head of the customs department, confirmed to the local LBC TV channel that there were five or six such letters to the judiciary.
He said his predecessor also pleaded with the judiciary to issue orders to export the explosive materials “because of how dangerous they are” to the port and staff there.
Mr Daher said it was his duty to “alert” authorities of the dangers but that is the most he could do. “I am not a technical expert.”
Meanwhile, media reports from 2014 claimed a Russian-owned vessel carrying that load was impounded at Beirut’s port that year after making an emergency stop in the city and being denied permission to leave by customs authorities because it was deemed unseaworthy.
The former captain of the vessel, the Rhosus, alleged in an interview with Russian journalists six years ago that the owner of the ship had abandoned it along with the crew, who were being “held hostage” by customs authorities.
With his crew running out of provisions, Captain Boris Prokoshev had warned of the dangers of his cargo.
“We’ve been here since October, with a cargo of ammonium nitrate, an explosive substance, in the hold,” he told a journalist of the Ukrainian Sailor newspaper. “We’ve been abandoned, living with no wage on a powder keg for the last 10 months.”
A Russian newspaper that reported on the situation carried a headline that reads especially eerily today: “Crew of the Rhosus cargo ship are hostages aboard a floating bomb.”
The mostly Ukrainian crew were held onboard the ship for nearly a year before they were released, their lawyers said in a 2015 note, and the ammonium nitrate was confiscated and held at the port in a warehouse.
President Aoun vowed before a Cabinet meeting that the investigation would be transparent and that those responsible will be punished. “There are no words to describe the catastrophe that hit Beirut last night,” he said.
After the meeting, the Cabinet ordered an unspecified number of Beirut port officials put under house arrest pending the investigation.
The Port of Beirut and customs office is notorious for being one of the most corrupt and lucrative institutions in Lebanon where various factions and politicians, including Hezbollah, hold sway.
“Beirut as we know it is gone and people won’t be able to rebuild their lives,” said Amy, a woman who swept glass from a small alley beside by a tall building that served as a showroom for a famous Lebanese designer and was a neighborhood landmark.
“This is hell. How are they (people) going to survive. What are they going to do?” she said, blaming officials for lack of responsibility and “stupidity.”
Hospitals were overwhelmed by the injured. One that was damaged in the blast had to evacuate all its patients to a nearby field for treatment.
It was the worst single explosion to strike Lebanon, a country whose history is filled with destruction — from a 1975-1990 civil war, conflicts with Israel and periodic terrorist attacks.
Lebanon already was on the brink of collapse amid a severe economic crisis and the coronavirus pandemic. Many have lost their jobs and seen their savings evaporate because of a currency crisis.
Food security is a worry, since the country imports nearly all its vital goods and its main port is now devastated.
Meanwhile, international aid workers continued to flood in after President Aoun made a plea to other nations for help on Tuesday.
The European Union was activating its civil protection system to round up emergency workers and equipment from across the 27-nation bloc.
The EU commission said the plan was to urgently dispatch over 100 firefighters with vehicles, sniffer dogs and equipment designed to find people trapped in urban areas.
The Czech Republic, Germany, Greece, Poland and the Netherlands were taking part in the effort, with other countries expected to join.
The EU’s satellite mapping system will be used to help Lebanese authorities establish the extent of damage.
Cyprus, where Tuesday’s blast was felt approximately 120 miles (180 kilometers) from Beirut, was sending in emergency personnel and sniffer dogs.
Britain promised a $6.6 million humanitarian support package. Russia flew in a mobile hospital, along with 50 emergency workers and medical personnel.
Iraq was sending six trucks of medical supplies and an emergency medical team to help bolster Lebanon’s overstretched health system, and Egypt and Jordan were supplying field hospitals.
Tunisia was sending medical teams, and offered to bring 100 patients back for treatment in Tunisia.
Even Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said his country, officially in a state of war with Lebanon, stood ready to offer to assist the Lebanese “as human beings to human beings.”
UN peacekeepers from Indonesia already stationed in Lebanon were helping in the evacuation effort and Australia said it was donating 2 million Australian dollars ($1.4 million) in humanitarian support.
But the pledges of aid raised new questions for a country whose economic and political crisis, combined with endemic corruption, have made donors wary in recent years.
The World Health Organisation is airlifting medical supplies to Lebanon to cover up to 1,000 trauma interventions and up to 1,000 surgical interventions, following a request from the country’s health minister.