London: Officials at the port where a stockpile of ammonium nitrate caused the explosion that killed more than a hundred people have been arrested amid rising fury in Lebanon over the disaster.
The country’s cabinet ordered officials at the Port of Beirut to be placed under military-supervised house arrest on Wednesday, until the cause of the deadly blast which maimed thousands and flattened stretches of downtown Beirut was established.
However it also emerged that senior government ministers were repeatedly warned about the risk of storing 2750-tonnes of the highly dangerous material in a densely populated urban area, but did nothing about it.
New photos show bags of the ammonium nitrate had been stacked on top of each other in a large warehouse after Lebanese customs officials seized the chemicals from a ship in 2014.
The warehouse – which has now been replaced by a 140-metre wide crater – appears to have had lax security and little ventilation despite Lebanon’s scorching climate and the potential to raid the material for bombs.
The death toll from Tuesday evening’s explosion rose to 135 on Wednesday as emergency service workers and residents picked through piles of rubble near the blast site, however the true figure is expected to be much higher.
Dozens have been reported missing and corpses have piled up at overrun hospitals across the city. More than 5000 people have been injured.
One Australian has been confirmed among the fatalities and consular officials are scrambling to work out how many others have been affected.
As many as 5000 Australians can usually be found in Beirut.
Beirut’s governor, Marwan Abboud, said the homes of some 300,000 residents had been rendered uninhabitable from the shockwaves of the blast. The city’s grain silos, which were next to the warehouse and store more than 80 per cent of the impoverished country’s imported grain, were also destroyed.
The city’s mayor, Jamal Itani, told Reuters: “It’s like a war zone. I’m speechless.”
Yukie Mokuo, the Lebanon representative for UNICEF, said a colleague had lost his spouse and seven staff were injured.
“Most of our staff- as are most people in Lebanon- are in a state of shock,” she said.
“Yesterday’s catastrophe in Beirut adds to what has already been a terrible crisis for the people of Lebanon compounded by an economic collapse and a surge in coronavirus cases.
“The pandemic already meant that hospitals are overwhelmed, and frontline workers are exhausted.”
Shock over the scale of the devastation is now giving way to anger over the apparent negligence which caused it.
In a sign of the tensions, a UN-backed court was due to hand down its verdict on the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik al-Hariri on Friday but has postponed the judgement until mid-August.
Tuesday’s explosion was thought to have been triggered by a fire in the waterfront warehouse containing 2750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate for the past six years. The material was stored there after it was confiscated from a cargo ship in 2014.
It’s not known what caused the fire.
Customs chief Badri Daher told reporters that his department had repeatedly asked for the ammonium nitrate to be taken away but “this did not happen”.
“We leave it to the experts and those concerned to determine why,” he said.
Lebanese President Michel Aoun pledged a transparent inquiry amid speculation over how the fire started, whether Hezbollah knew about the ammonium nitrate stockpile or ever accessed it, and whether firefighters who first raced to the scene of the warehouse blaze knew the building contained a highly explosive material.
“We are determined to investigate and reveal what happened as soon as possible, to mete out punishment,” Aoun said.
Asked about the cause in an interview on the BBC, Lebanese Economy Minister Raoul Nehme replied: “I think it is incompetence and really bad management and there are a lot of responsibilities from management and probably previous governments.”
France has dispatched planes filled with medical supplies and aid is also on the way from Russia, the United Kingdom, the European Union and other countries. The Australian government has pledged $2 million from its existing aid budget.
Jordan and Egypt have also offered to treat the injured in their hospitals.
Bevan Shields is the Europe correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.