Beirut begins clearance of port containers, probe drags on

In late October, the Beirut Bar Association handed the public prosecutor almost 700 criminal complaints from victims of the August 4 port blast. It was first wave of complaints to be filed of around 1,400 cases being compiled by the Bar Association.
Friday 20/11/2020
Work underway at Beirut port. (REUTERS)
Work underway at Beirut port. (REUTERS)

BEIRUT--Lebanon has signed a deal with a German company to dispose of 49 containers of flammable chemicals from Beirut’s port, months after a deadly and devastating blast, officials said Thursday.

Combi Lift, a German a heavy lift transport company that was already working in the port, started clearing the containers soon after the contract was signed on November 11, the prime minister’s office said.

The containers, which include corrosive acids, have been stored in an open-air cargo zone for over a decade under the supervision of Lebanon’s customs authority, a spokesperson said.

Combi Lift will ship the chemicals in special containers as part of a $3.6 million deal, with the port authority reportedly to pay $2 million of that.

Interim port chief Bassem al-Kaissi said that removing the chemicals was a necessary “preemptive step,” warning that if they caught fire “Beirut will be wiped out.”

The containers sparked concern after the mammoth August 4 disaster — Lebanon’s worst in peace-time — killed more than 200 people, injured at least 6,500 others and ruined swathes of the capital.

 Complaints 

Authorities say the blast was caused by a shipment of ammonium nitrate fertiliser that caught fire, years after it was impounded at the port.

In late October, the Beirut Bar Association handed the public prosecutor almost 700 criminal complaints from victims of the August 4 port blast, Lebanon’s National News Agency said.

“We presented 679 complaints today, in the name of the families of those killed, wounded and affected,” Bar Association head Melhem Khalaf said, according to the NNA.

“We cannot stop until a verdict is pronounced,” Khalaf said, calling the blast “a horrific catastrophe.”

It was the first wave of complaints to be filed of around 1,400 cases being compiled by the Bar Association.

“We need to go deep with the ongoing investigations,” Khalaf added.

The blast, the country’s worst peacetime disaster, reignited popular outrage against the political class, after it emerged officials had known the ammonium nitrate had been stored unsafely at the port for years.

Lebanese officials have rejected an international probe, despite demands both from home and abroad for an impartial investigation.

A local investigation has led to the arrest of at least 25 suspects, including the chief of the port and its customs director.

Experts from France and the US Federal Bureau of Investigation took part in the preliminary investigation.

A judicial source said that Lebanon had received the report from the American experts, and was expecting one from France.

“Much hinges on the French report to determine the causes of the explosion,” the source said.

According to Khalaf, the FBI report relies on information from the Lebanese agencies, whereas the French one will draw on “the results of laboratory tests.”

Lebanon has complained it has yet to receive satellite images of the port before, during and after the blast that it requested from France and Italy.