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Israel, US make new claims, requests about Beirut blast – UPDATES

Seismological data suggests that six blasts preceded the Beirut port explosion, the last of them a combustion of fireworks that apparently set off a warehouse full of ammonium nitrate, an Israeli analyst said on Thursday.

The six blasts were at 11-second intervals during the Aug. 4 incident, with the main explosion following the last by around 43 seconds, Boaz Hayoun of Israel’s Tamar Group told Reuters.

Hayoun, a former military engineering officer whose current roles include overseeing safety standards for explosives use in Israel, said his analysis was based on data from seismological sensors stationed across the region.

“I cannot say categorically what caused this, but I can say these blasts were at the same location,” he told Reuters.

Among the sensors cited by Hayoun was an array installed about 70 km (43 miles) off Lebanon’s coast by the international geological project IRIS – which cast doubt on his conclusions.

IRIS said its sensors picked up more than five “small bursts” at intervals of around 11 seconds before the main Beirut explosion, a sequence that continued after the incident.

“I do not believe that they are associated with the large explosion in Beirut,” Jerry Carter, director of IRIS data services, told Reuters.

“They could be from a seismic survey,” he added, referring to geologists carrying out airgun bursts for underwater mapping.

Lebanese officials have blamed the explosion, which killed at least 172 people and left much of the capital in ruins, on a huge stockpile of ammonium nitrate catching fire after being stored unsafely at the port for years.

President Michel Aoun has said investigators would also look into the possibility of “external interference” such as a bomb, as well as negligence or an accident as causes.

Hayoun assessed that the Beirut incident involved underground explosions. The 43-metre (140-foot) deep crater at the port could not have been left by the explosion of the amount of ammonium nitrate reported by Lebanese authorities, he said:

“It would have been shallower, maximum 25 or 30 metres.”

The main explosion, of the ammonium nitrate warehouse, was preceded by a nearby fire.

Hayoun said that having seen footage of that fire he was convinced it was caused by the combustion of fireworks – and that this would have been sufficient to set off the ammonium nitrate.

Israel Defense, a leading private online journal with close ties to the Israeli military establishment and which first reported Hayoun’s findings, described his analysis of a possible blast sequence as consistent with munitions detonations.

Such a sequence could be consistent with “weapons systems that are activated in a chain” and which might have been stored in the port and set off accidentally or deliberately, said Israel Defense.

However, it did not provide evidence to suggest sabotage.

UPDATE

The No. 3 U.S. diplomat will head to Lebanon on Thursday to stress the “urgent need” for the country to embrace fundamental reform, the State Department said, in the aftermath of a blast that caused large-scale damage in the capital Beirut.

The Aug. 4 explosion at a warehouse storing highly explosive material killed at least 172 people, injured some 6,000, left around 300,000 without habitable housing and wrecked swathes of the Mediterranean city, compounding a deep economic and financial crisis.

In planned meetings with political leaders, civil society, and youth groups, Undersecretary for Political Affairs David Hale will also underscore America’s willingness to support any government that is “genuinely committed” to and acting upon such a reform agenda, the State Department said in a statement.

“Hale will stress the urgent need to embrace fundamental economic, financial, and governance reform, ending endemic corruption, bringing accountability and transparency, and introducing widespread state control through functioning institutions,” it said.

He will also reiterate U.S. government’s commitment to assist the country.

Humanitarian aid has poured in but foreign countries have made clear they will not provide funds to help pull Lebanon from economic collapse without action on long-demanded reforms to tackle systemic graft, waste, mismanagement and negligence.

The resignation of Prime Minister Hassan Diab’s government this week has deepened uncertainty. His cabinet’s talks with the International Monetary Fund for a bailout had already stalled over internal differences about the scale of financial losses.

Forming a new government could be daunting amid factional rifts and growing public discontent with a ruling class that many Lebanese brand as responsible for the country’s woes.

UPDATES

Iran backs Lebanon’s powerful armed movement Hezbollah, which along with its allies helped form the outgoing government. The United States classifies Hezbollah as a terrorist group.

Mohammed Javad Zarif was speaking after meeting President Michel Aoun, who had earlier met with U.S. and French officials in a flurry of Western diplomacy that has focused on urging Lebanon to fight corruption and enact long-delayed reforms to unlock foreign financial aid to tackle an economic crisis.

“There should be international efforts to help Lebanon, not to impose anything on it,” Zarif said in televised comments.

He earlier remarked that the Lebanese people and their representatives should decide on the future of Lebanon. “It is not humane to exploit the pain and suffering of the people for political goals,” he said.

Lebanese had been staging angry protests against a political elite blamed for the country’s many woes even before the Aug 4. blast, which injured 6,000, damaged swathes of the Mediterranean city and left 300,000 homeless. Some 30 people remain missing.

The explosion sharply deepened anger at the authorities.

“We can’t live like this. The West has to pressure our leaders to save us,” said Iyaam Ghanem, a Beirut pharmacist.

U.S. Under-Secretary of State for Political Affairs David Hale and French Defence Minister Florence Parly met separately with Aoun on Friday.

Parly in televised remarks later called for the formation of a government capable of taking “courageous decisions”.

CALLS FOR JUSTICE

Hale said on Thursday the United States’ FBI would join a probe into the blast at a hangar in the port where highly-explosive material detonated in a mushroom cloud. Hale called for an end to “dysfunctional governments and empty promises”.

International humanitarian aid has poured in but foreign states have linked any financial assistance to reform of the Lebanese state, which has defaulted on its huge sovereign debts.

Zarif said Tehran and private Iranian companies were ready to help with reconstruction and rehabilitating Lebanon’s electricity sector, which is a chief target of reform.

France’s navy helicopter carrier Tonnerre docked at the port, where authorities say more than 2,000 tonnes of ammonium nitrate had been stored for years without safety measures.

Aoun told Hale that Beirut needed help to “understand the circumstances” under which the nitrate shipment was brought into the port and unloaded, an official statement said.

Aoun has said the probe would look into whether the cause was negligence, an accident or “external interference”.

Victims and their representatives told reporters that only an independent probe would deliver justice, appealing to the U.N. Security Council for an international investigation and the referral of the blast to an international court.

“Is it acceptable that people find their homes shattered, their families killed, their hopes and their dreams killed, with no justice,” said Paul Najjar, whose three-year-old daughter Alexandra died in the blast.

State news agency NNA said questioning of some ministers due on Friday had been postponed as the judge appointed for the task said he did not have authority to question government ministers.

The cabinet resignation has fuelled uncertainty. Agreement on a new government will likely be very difficult in a country with deep factional rifts and a sectarian power-sharing system.

Senior Christian cleric Maronite Patriarch Bechara Boutros Al-Rai, who wants Beirut kept out of regional conflicts, said a new Lebanon was being “cooked in kitchens” of foreign countries, which he did not name, to serve the interest of politicians.

UPDATES

French President Emmanuel Macron plans to return to Beirut on Sept. 1 to follow up on the reconstruction efforts after the catastrophic blast which destroyed parts of Beirut last week, French Defense Minister Florence Parly said Friday.

Parly, speaking after a tour of the French helicopter-carrier Tonnerre which arrived earlier in the day in the devastated port of Beirut, also called on the Lebanese to form a government capable of taking “courageous decisions.”

She described the ship as a “floating city” which can provide all kind of medical and technical support, including a hospital, search and rescue equipment, construction materials and also transporting a shipment of flour.

The government of Prime Minister Hassan Diab, which has the backing of the Iran-aligned Hezbollah, resigned in the wake of the explosion.

Source: Reuters

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