Devastating: the terrible aftermath of the Beirut explosion

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Smoke rises in the aftermath of a massive explosion in Beirut, Lebanon, on Aug. 4, 2020. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)
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Rescue workers help an injured man at the explosion scene that hit the seaport of Beirut, Lebanon, on Aug. 4, 2020. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)
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People evacuate a wounded person after a massive explosion in Beirut, Lebanon, on Aug. 4, 2020. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)
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Updated 05 August 2020

Devastating: the terrible aftermath of the Beirut explosion

  • Dozens dead, thousands injured, hospitals overwhelmed, large part of city destroyed, toxic fumes — yet politicians are still trying to score points

BEIRUT: Beirut is a devastated city. There is no other word to describe the aftermath of a massive explosion that rocked the Lebanese capital on Tuesday afternoon, killing dozens and injuring thousands.

The blast happened at a warehouse in the port area of the city that reportedly had been used for years to store about 3,000 tons of confiscated chemicals. It destroyed everything within a radius or more than half a mile, and caused damage to buildings as far away as nine miles. Warnings were also issued about a toxic plume of smoke that blanketed the city after the explosion.

Shortly before midnight, Lebanon’s Higher Defense Council declared Beirut a disaster zone and urged the cabinet to declare a state of emergency. The eastern part of Port of Beirut is completely destroyed. The damage to the capital is catastrophic, much worse than that caused by the Israeli attacks in 2006.

Military sources said the chemicals that exploded — believed to be ammonium nitrate, a common agricultural fertilizer — were confiscated several years ago and irresponsibly stored at the port, close to residential and commercial areas, under the orders of the judiciary.

Officials warned people to avoid inhaling the smog that shrouded the city after the blast, which they said could remain in the air until at least the following day. Despite this, people could be seen wandering around the city’s downtown area taking photographs of the devastation. Some were not even wearing masks to protect themselves from the toxins.

After enduring one crisis after another — from the economic crisis that has provoked sustained street protests against political corruption and mismanagement, to the pandemic and now the explosion — perhaps the people of Lebanon have simply become indifferent to disaster.

Ambulance sirens could be heard throughout the night as paramedics and volunteers worked tirelessly to rescue thousands of people injured by the explosion and take them to overwhelmed hospitals, and recover the bodies of the dead.

A number of hospitals close to Beirut’s downtown area, especially in the eastern suburb of Achrafieh, were badly damaged by the blast, leaving scores of people dead and injured. Those in less critical conditions were moved to nearby parking lots, while those with life-threatening injuries were taken to hospitals outside of Beirut. Health minister Hamad Hassan said all treatment costs will be covered by the state.




A giant plume of smoke soared as the explosion shattered windows throughout Beirut. (AFP)

Shortly before midnight, the official death toll reached 73 but this is expected to rise, according to health officials, because many missing persons “are turning up dead or critically injured under the rubble of houses and offices that were wiped out by the blast.”

A number of government buildings were damaged, including the The Grand Serail, which is the prime minister’s headquarters, the Finance Ministry and the Telecoms Ministry. The windows of offices at the Information Ministry, which is more than four miles from the Port, were shattered by the blast.

Prime Minister Hassan Diab’s daughter and wife, who live in the Serail, were treated for minor injuries. His health adviser, Petra Khoury, was taken from there to hospital with cuts that required stitches.

The explosion was heard more than 60 kilometers south of Beirut. It could be felt in other countries, with the Jordan Seismological Observatory reporting that it was equivalent to an earthquake measuring 4.5 on the Richter scale.

The heads of many Arab and other foreign states pledged to provide urgent assistance to Lebanon. Yet despite the disaster, some politicians in the country refuse to put aside their political differences to focus on helping the people of the city. As Diab and President Michel Aoun called for an immediate investigation into the cause of the disaster to determine who is responsible and what assistance is needed, opposition parties were already blaming the recently-formed government.

 


Critic of Palestinian Authority dies after violent arrest

Updated 24 June 2021

Critic of Palestinian Authority dies after violent arrest

  • Nizar Banat was a harsh critic of the PA, which governs parts of the Israeli-occupied West Bank

JERUSALEM: An outspoken critic of the Palestinian Authority who was a candidate in parliamentary elections called off earlier this year died after Palestinian security forces arrested him and beat him with an iron rod on Thursday, his family said.
Nizar Banat was a harsh critic of the PA, which governs parts of the Israeli-occupied West Bank, and had called on Western nations to cut off aid to it because of its authoritarianism and human rights violations. Earlier this week, another prominent activist was detained by the PA and held overnight after criticizing it on Facebook.
The crackdown on dissent comes as the internationally-backed PA faces a growing backlash from Palestinians who view it as corrupt and increasingly autocratic, a manifestation of a three-decade-old peace process that has yet to deliver an independent state.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who was elected to a four-year term in 2005, has little to show after more than a decade of close security coordination with Israel. The 85-year-old leader has been powerless to stop the expansion of Jewish settlements, home demolitions, evictions in Jerusalem and deadly Israeli military raids, and was largely ignored during the recent unrest in Jerusalem and the 11-day Gaza war.
Western nations nevertheless view the PA as a key partner for rebuilding Gaza, which is ruled by the militant Hamas group, and eventually reviving the moribund peace process.
Ammar Banat, a cousin of the deceased, said around 25 Palestinian security forces stormed the home where Nizar was staying, blowing out doors and windows. They beat Nizar with an iron bar and sprayed pepper spray in his eyes before undressing him and dragging him away, Ammar told a local radio station, citing two other cousins who were present during the arrest.
In a brief statement, the Hebron governorate said Nizar’s “health deteriorated” when Palestinian forces went to arrest him early Thursday. It said he was taken to a hospital where he was later pronounced dead.
Representatives of the European Union and the United Nations called for an independent investigation, and Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh later announced the formation of an investigative committee. He said a doctor chosen by the family would participate in the autopsy and the family would be invited to provide testimony.
Around 100 protesters gathered in the West Bank city of Ramallah and tried to march to the PA’s headquarters. Palestinian security forces halted them and fired tear gas as scuffles broke out.
In early May, gunmen fired bullets, stun grenades and tear gas at Nizar Banat’s home near the West Bank city of Hebron, where his wife was inside with their children. He blamed the attack on Abbas’ Fatah party, which dominates the security forces, saying only they would have access to tear gas and stun grenades.
“The Europeans need to know that they are indirectly funding this organization,” he told The Associated Press in May in an interview at a home where he was hiding out. “They fire their guns into the air at Fatah celebrations, they fire their guns in the air when Fatah leaders fight each other and they fire their guns at people who oppose Fatah.”
He said prominent Fatah supporters were waging an incitement campaign against him on social media in which they accused him of collaborating with Israel, which most Palestinians view as treason. He denied the accusation, and Hamas and another militant group condemned what they referred to as his “assassination” by PA forces.
More recently, he had criticized the Palestinian leadership over an agreement in which Israel sent the PA a shipment of coronavirus vaccines that were soon to expire in exchange for fresh doses the Palestinians expect to receive later this year. The PA called off the agreement after it faced a wave of criticism on social media. Israel said the doses it sent were safe and effective.
The European Union’s delegation to the Palestinians wrote on Twitter that it was “shocked and saddened” by Banat’s death and called for a “full, independent, and transparent investigation.” The United Nation’s Mideast envoy, Tor Wennesland, also called for an investigation into the incident, saying that the “perpetrators must be brought to justice.”
Earlier this week, Palestinian security forces detained a prominent activist and held him overnight after he took to Facebook to criticize the PA’s arrest of another individual. Issa Amro is an outspoken critic of both Israel and the PA, and has been detained by both in the past. he also criticized the PA over the vaccine exchange.
A recent poll showed plummeting support for Abbas, who canceled the first elections in 15 years in April when it looked like his fractured Fatah party would suffer another humiliating defeat to Hamas. The militant group drove out forces loyal to Abbas when it seized power in Gaza in 2007.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with Abbas when he visited the region after the Gaza war last month, and the Biden administration is working to improve US relations with the PA after they fell to an all-time low under President Donald Trump.
The European Union has provided hundreds of millions of dollars in direct aid to the PA over the years. Earlier this week, the EU signed an agreement to provide $425 million in loans to the PA and Palestinian banks to help them cope with an economic crisis exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic.

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Libya sees progress on removal of foreign mercenaries at Berlin talks

German Chancellor Angela Merkel welcomes Libyan Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah in Berlin on June 23, 2021, on the sidelines of a new round of Libya peace talks. (AFP / Tobias Schwarz)
Updated 24 June 2021

Libya sees progress on removal of foreign mercenaries at Berlin talks

  • Premier urges parliament to approve election law to allow December election to go ahead

BERLIN: Libya’s foreign minister said on Wednesday international powers had made progress at talks in Berlin on the removal of foreign fighters from the country, although a final communique from the UN-backed conference specified no concrete new measures.

Libya has had little stability since a 2011 NATO-backed uprising against then-head of state Muammar Qaddafi, but a UN-led peace process brought a ceasefire last summer after fighting between rival factions paused.

Wednesday’s meeting in Berlin aimed to make progress on removing mercenaries and other foreign forces from Libya, months after the ceasefire called for their withdrawal, as well as on steps toward securing a December election.

“Hopefully within coming days mercenaries (on) both sides will be withdrawn,” Libya’s Foreign Minister Najla Mangoush told a news conference following the talks.

A senior official at the US State Department said Turkey and Russia, which back opposing sides in Libya, had reached an initial understanding to work toward a target of pulling out 300 Syrian mercenaries from each side of the conflict.

HIGHLIGHT

A US State Department official said it was unrealistic to think a full withdrawal of foreign fighters would come overnight and that it would be a phased approach.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas also said he believed there was an understanding between Russia and Turkey on a step-by-step withdrawal of their fighters.

“This will not mean that everybody will take their mercenaries back overnight,” he said. The talks were also attended by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

A second State Department official said it was unrealistic to think a full withdrawal of foreign fighters would come overnight and that it would be a phased approach.

“Getting at what we think is one of the key de-stabilizing elements, the presence of these foreign fighters, Syrians, Chadians, Sudanese, that is an important first step and it’s not something we had before,” the official said.

Libyan Prime Minister Abdulhamid Dbeiba called on Libya’s parliament to approve an election law to allow the December election to go ahead and to pass his government’s budget.

“Unfortunately, we have not yet seen the necessary seriousness from the legislative bodies,” he said.


Israel army chief says cooperation with US against Iran ‘unprecedented’

Updated 23 June 2021

Israel army chief says cooperation with US against Iran ‘unprecedented’

  • Lt. Gen. Aviv Kohavi's remarks came the same day as Iran said it had foiled a sabotage attack on an atomic energy agency building
  • Israel staunchly opposes the deal, which it fears could enable its arch-nemesis to obtain nuclear weapons.

JERUSALEM: Israel’s army chief on Wednesday hailed “unprecedented” cooperation with the US, as he wrapped up a US visit focused on preventing Tehran from obtaining military nuclear capabilities.
Lt. Gen. Aviv Kohavi’s remarks came the same day as Iran said it had foiled a sabotage attack on an atomic energy agency building, as talks continue in Vienna between Tehran and world powers aimed at reviving their 2015 nuclear deal.
Israel staunchly opposes the deal, which it fears could enable its arch-nemesis to obtain nuclear weapons.
Kohavi’s visit, which began on Sunday, also came four weeks since Israel and Gaza’s Palestinian Islamist rulers Hamas agreed a cease-fire ending 11 days of heavy fighting.
At the US military’s Central Command in Florida, Kohavi met Centcom commander General Frank McKenzie, where he discussed the Gaza war, the Syrian arena and coordination between the countries.
“The IDF’s operational cooperation with the US military is unprecedented in its scope and has reached new heights,” Kohavi said in a statement, using the acronym for Israel defense forces.
“The mutual and main goal of action for the two armies is thwarting Iranian aggression,” he added.
“Iran seeks to establish and entrench terrorists in many countries (and) continues to pose a regional threat in terms of nuclear proliferation, advanced weapons systems including ballistic missile capabilities, and the financing of terrorist armies,” the Israeli general said.
Kohavi was also meeting with US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan on “Iran’s regional entrenchment throughout the Middle East and the flaws” of the nuclear deal with Iran, a statement from the military said.
In meetings with Sullivan and CIA head William Burns, Kohavi was “presenting multiple ways to prevent Iran from acquiring military nuclear capabilities,” the army said.
Kohavi was due to return to Israel on Friday.


More blackouts ahead as Lebanon generators starved of fuel

Updated 23 June 2021

More blackouts ahead as Lebanon generators starved of fuel

  • National network run by Electricité du Liban is prone to blackouts as some areas only gets provided power for 2 hours a day
  • Many Lebanese pay a separate bill for a backup from neighbourhood generators run by private firms

BEIRUT: The owners of private generators that provide a vital backup to Lebanon’s decrepit power grid warned Wednesday of their own cuts due to lack of fuel as the country’s economic crisis deepens.
The national network run by Electricité du Liban is prone to blackouts and in some areas only manages to provide power for two hours a day.
That forces many Lebanese to pay a separate bill for a backup from neighborhood generators run by private firms.
With the Lebanese economy facing its worst crisis in a generation and the currency in freefall, private suppliers have warned they are struggling to secure enough fuel to keep running.
The crisis is so acute that on Wednesday the lights went out in a building belonging to the foreign ministry, forcing employees to stop work, Lebanese media reported.
“Generator owners in several regions started telling customers on Wednesday that they would not be able to provide electricity for lack of mazout,” a widely used petrol derivative, said Abdu Saadeh, head of a syndicate for generator owners.
“We had warned late last week that the stocks would start running dry... and so far we haven’t found a solution.”
Lebanon has been roiled since autumn 2019 by an economic crisis the World Bank says is likely to rank among the world’s worst financial crises since the mid-19th century.
The collapse has sparked outrage at Lebanon’s political class, seen as woefully corrupt and unable to tackle the country’s many difficulties.
Officials have blamed the current fuel shortages on stockpiling by traders and a surge of fuel smuggling into Syria.
Several people have been arrested on suspicion of smuggling in recent weeks, according to the police.
The central bank has set up a mechanism to subsidise fuels by up to 85 percent, but fuel importers have accused it of failing to implement the program.
The head of public Internet provider Ogero has warned that electricity cuts could also threaten Lebanon’s access to the web.

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World powers in new push for Libya peace

Updated 23 June 2021

World powers in new push for Libya peace

BERLIN: Germany and the United Nations are bringing together representatives of Libya with powers that have interests in the country at a conference Wednesday which aims for progress toward securing elections in the North African nation and the removal of foreign fighters.
The meeting at the foreign ministry in Berlin, with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken among participants, follows up on a January 2020 conference where leaders agreed to respect an arms embargo and to push the country’s warring parties to reach a full cease-fire. Germany has tried to act as an intermediary.
Countries that have been involved in the process include the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, along with Italy, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates.
Ahead of the conference, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas noted that much has been achieved in the past two years. An October cease-fire agreement that included a demand that all foreign fighters and mercenaries leave Libya within 90 days led to a deal on elections, due to be held on Dec. 24, and a transitional government that took office in February.
But “many challenges still lie ahead of us,” said Maas. “For the further stabilization of the country, it is crucial that elections take place as planned and that foreign fighters and mercenaries really do leave Libya.”
He added that Wednesday’s conference launches a new phase “in which we no longer only talk about Libya, but in which we are now speaking with Libyan men and women about the future of their country.”
Blinken said that “we share the goal of a sovereign, stable, unified, secure Libya free from foreign interference — it’s what the people of Libya deserve, it’s critical to regional security as well.”
“For that to happen, national elections need to go forward in December and that means urgent agreement is needed on constitutional and legal issues that would undergird those elections,” he said at a news conference with Maas. “And the Oct. 23 cease-fire agreement has to be fully implemented, including by withdrawing all foreign forces from Libya.”
The US special envoy for Libya, Richard Norland, said it was important to start bringing all armed groups in the country under a joint military command. “When foreign forces leave, they’re going to need to be replaced by a viable united Libyan national military and police structure,” he said.
Meanwhile, aid group Doctors Without Borders said this week it was suspending its activities in two detention centers in Tripoli after “repeated incidents of violence toward refugees and migrants held there.” It said staff had witnessed guards beating detainees at one center and received reports of people being shot at in another.
Libya has been a key transit country for migrants from Africa trying to reach Europe, especially after the collapse of order when a NATO-backed uprising toppled and later killed longtime dictator Muammar Qaddafi in 2011. The oil-rich country was long divided between a UN-supported government in the capital, Tripoli, and rival authorities based in the country’s east, each backed by armed groups and foreign governments.
In April 2019, eastern-based commander Khalifa Haftar and his forces, backed by Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, launched an offensive to try to capture Tripoli. Haftar’s 14-month campaign collapsed after Turkey stepped up its military support of the UN-backed government with hundreds of troops and thousands of Syrian mercenaries.
Little progress has been made so far on getting foreign forces out of Libya. Jalel Harchaoui, a senior fellow at the Geneva-based Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime who follows Libya closely, said that it is the presence of foreign mercenaries, acting as a sort of deterrent, that has led to the current, if uneasy, peace.
“That’s what it comes down to, and of course it’s not politically correct to say,” he said. He cautioned that elections could deepen polarization if conducted too hastily.