FBI to join Beirut blast probe as US envoy warns Lebanon to end ’empty promises’

By Issam Abdallah and Ellen Francis

Beirut – A top US diplomat said on Thursday the FBI will join a probe of last week’s seismic Beirut explosion that killed at least 172 people, urging change to “to make sure something like this never happens again”.

On a tour of a demolished Beirut neighbourhood, US Undersecretary for Political Affairs David Hale said Lebanon needed “economic and fiscal reforms, an end to dysfunctional governance and to empty promises.”

The August 4 warehouse explosion at Beirut’s port injured 6 000 people, left around 300 000 without inhabitable housing and wrecked swathes of the city, which was already sinking deep into financial crisis. Some 30-40 people remain missing.

Authorities have blamed the blast on a huge stockpile of ammonium nitrate stored for years at the port without safety measures.

“The FBI will soon join Lebanese and international investigators at the invitation of the Lebanese to help answer questions about the circumstances that led up to this explosion,” Hale said on Thursday.

Lebanese President Michel Aoun has said the investigation will look into whether the cause was negligence, an accident or possibly “external interference”.

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US Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs David Hale, right, listens to an NGO volunteer during his visit to a main gathering point for volunteers, near the site of last week’s explosion that hit the seaport of Beirut, Lebanon. Picture: Hussein Malla/AP

Aoun has asked France for satellite imagery for the probe. A UK Royal Navy vessel was also deployed to Beirut to help survey the site.

An Israeli seismological expert said on Thursday the explosion was preceded by a series of blasts, the last of which was combustion of fireworks.

FACTIONAL RIFTS

Authorities have estimated losses from the blast at $15 billion, a bill Lebanon cannot pay: it already defaulted on its enormous sovereign debt in March and IMF talks had stalled.

Humanitarian aid has poured in. But foreign countries have made clear they will not give funds to help Lebanon out of economic collapse without action on reforms to tackle decades of state corruption and waste.

Hale, Washington’s No. 3 diplomat, said the United States would back any new government that “reflects the will of the people” and enacts reforms. The fallout from the explosion, which caused public fury, pushed the cabinet to resign this week.

But agreement on a new one could be daunting in a country with factional rifts and a sectarian power-sharing system. Public anger has grown at a political elite in power for decades, which many blame for the country’s woes.

The now-caretaker government came to office in January with backing from various political parties, including the heavily armed, Iran-backed Shi’ite Muslim Hezbollah. Together with its allies, they have a majority of seats in parliament.

The United States classifies Hezbollah as terrorist.

Security forces were heavily deployed in Beirut on Thursday, stopping protesters from reaching a legislative session.

“They are all criminals, they are the ones who caused this catastrophe, this explosion,” said Lina Boubess, 60, a demonstrator.

“Isn’t it enough that they stole our money, our lives, our dreams and the dreams of our children? What more do we have to lose?”

Parliament approved an earlier government decision declaring a state of emergency, which activists criticized as an attempt to suppress dissent. It also confirmed the resignations of eight MPs who quit after the blast.

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