US official says FBI joining Beirut explosion investigation

International

People walk next debris from destroyed buildings on a neighborhood near the site of last week’s explosion that hit the seaport of Beirut, Lebanon, Thursday, Aug. 13, 2020. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)

BEIRUT (AP) — The FBI will join Lebanese and other international investigators in the probe of the massive explosion at Beirut’s port that killed more than 170 people, injured thousands and caused widespread destruction, a U.S. diplomat said Thursday.

Lebanese authorities had invited the FBI to take part, and it is one way that Washington can help the country deal with the effects of the disaster, said U.S. Undersecretary for Political Affairs David Hale as he toured the Gemayezeh neighborhood, which was damaged by the Aug. 4 blast.

“The FBI will soon join Lebanese and international investigators at the invitation of the Lebanese in order to help answer questions that I know everyone has about the circumstances that led up to this explosion,” he told reporters.

It is still not known what caused the fire responsible for igniting nearly 3,000 tons of ammonium nitrate that were stored for years in Beirut’s port. But documents have emerged that show the country’s top leadership and security officials were aware of the stockpile. French investigators are also taking part in the probe.

Lebanese officials agreed Thursday on naming a judicial investigator to lead the probe under the auspices of the Supreme Judicial Council, which handles crimes that infringe on the country’s national security, as well as political and state security crimes.

The U.S. Embassy said Hale is expected to “reiterate the American government’s commitment to assist the Lebanese people in recovering from the tragedy and rebuilding their lives.” He will also stress the “urgent need” for embracing fundamental reforms by Lebanon’s leaders.

So far, Washington has offered $18 million in humanitarian assistance provided by U.S. Agency for International Development and the departments of State and Defense.

The United States is one of the largest donors to the Lebanese armed forces. But Washington views Hezbollah, a powerful political player in the government and parliament, as a terrorist group. U.S. officials have expressed concerns about aid not going to the Hezbollah-backed government.

The government resigned on Monday but remains in a caretaker capacity. The resignation came nearly a week after the deadly blast that wrecked the capital’s port and damaged neighborhoods across the capital.

The World Bank, in a preliminary assessment, said about 50,000 residential units were damaged and 80% of residential buildings and infrastructure were impacted, aside from the destruction to the port. Wastewater systems in central Beirut and an electrical substation in one neighborhood also were severely damaged, it said.

“Beyond the human tragedy, the economic impact of the explosion could be large,” the report said, including a decline in trade, economic activities and government revenues.

An earlier estimate from Beirut Gov. Marwan Abboud said the blast caused $10 billion to $15 billion in damage, with nearly 300,000 people left homeless.

On Thursday, Lebanon’s Parliament approved a state of emergency in Beirut in its first session since the explosion, granting the military sweeping powers amid rising popular anger at official corruption and mismanagement and political uncertainty.

The disaster has raised popular fury toward Lebanon’s leaders to a new level as the country reels from an unprecedented economic and financial crisis, along with the coronavirus pandemic.

Before it resigned, the government declared the state of emergency that gave the military the power to declare curfews, prevent public gatherings and censor the media, as well as refer civilians to military tribunals for alleged security breaches.

The move has been criticized by rights groups and others who say the civilian government already was operating with increased powers because of the coronavirus outbreak. Some pointed to the military crackdown on protesters last week, fearing the extended powers could lead to silencing dissent.

Parliament is required to approve the state of emergency eight days after it is imposed. But it wasn’t clear if the body had technically extended the government decision for 15 days or simply imposed the state of emergency starting Thursday, said rights lawyer Nizar Saghieh.

“There is incredible chaos,” Saghieh said. He said the state of emergency’s only justification is to extend the power of the state and security agencies and “control the opposition.”

“We were waiting for the army to help in reconstruction not be an extension of power,” he said.

Lawmaker Simon Abi Ramieh called on parliament to form a parliamentary committee to investigate the blast— protesting that it convened to vote on the state of emergency which is still in effect since the government passed it.

“We are living in a state of institutional blunder,” he said. “We are in a place and the Lebanese people are somewhere else. … The public wants to know the truth behind the negligence that led to the explosion.”

Lebanon’s political landscape has been shaken by the blast. Before resigning, the caretaker prime minister proposed early elections, an idea that was not supported by the Parliament speaker and other political groups.

Since the resignation, there has been a flurry of closed-door meetings and political haggling to form a government that meets the approval of domestic and international powers. Lebanon’s complicated sectarian-based political system requires the prime minister to be chosen from among Sunni Muslims. It wasn’t clear if there would be a national unity government — which would mean the participation of all political parties — or an emergency transition government.

France’s defense minister was due to arrive in Beirut on Thursday amid a flurry of foreign visits to the stricken country. France has been leading efforts to help Lebanon emerge from the drastic blow, including talking to political parties to hasten the formation of a new government.

Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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