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Beirut port fire: Massive blaze brought under control; no injuries reported

Reuters/AFP
Filed on September 10, 2020
Beirut port fire, Lebanese

The blaze erupted a little more than a month after a huge explosion devastated the port and surrounding area.

A large fire erupted at Beirut port on Thursday, engulfing parts of the Lebanese capital in a pall of smoke weeks after a massive blast devastated the port and surrounding residential area.

The blaze began in the shattered duty free zone of the port, prompting some residents to flee the city still traumatised by last month's explosion which followed a port fire.

"For sure we were scared, it's only been a month since the explosion that destroyed Beirut. We saw the same thing happening again," 53-year-old Andre Muarbes said as soot and ash fell on vehicles and buildings across parts of the capital.

Army helicopters dropped water on the fire, as firefighters battled the blaze on the ground.

There were no immediate reports of injuries but the blaze strained nerves already on edge in a nation grappling with a deep economic crisis that has posed the biggest threat to Lebanon's stability since its 1975-1990 civil war.

Michel Najjar, public works minister in the outgoing government which resigned in the wake of the blast, told Lebanon's MTV the fire had been brought under control, saying initial indications suggested the blaze was sparked by repair work at the port.

A military source said it appeared to have started when cooking oil caught fire and spread to stores of tyres. At one point, live television footage had shown flames licking up near a pile of tires in a warehouse ruined by last month's explosion.

The August 4 blast killed about 190 people and injured 6,000.

Majed Hassanein, 49, was taking his wife and two children out of the capital by car. "I am forced to get them out of Beirut from the smoke and the fire that is happening at the port again," he said.

His son, he said, was still suffering shock from the blast that ruined a swathe of capital near the port, leaving about 300,000 people without inhabitable homes and shattering windows across the city.

The head of Lebanon's Red Cross, George Kettaneh, said there was no fear of another explosion as a result of Thursday's fire and there were no injuries, although he said there were some people suffering from shortness of breath.

The public prosecutor ordered an immediate investigation. Many Lebanese are frustrated that they have not been told about any initial findings from an investigation into the port blast, more than a month after it ripped through Beirut.

Carmen Geha, an activist and associate professor at the American University of Beirut, said the fire was further proof of mismanagement by a ruling elite, who have dragged the nation into crisis after years of corruption and poor governance.

"It's a gross crime, gross negligence and gross arrogance," she said. "You can't trust them to manage anything."

Firefighters were shown in television footage dousing the port fire surrounded by mangled remains of warehouses destroyed in last month's explosion, which was caused by a store of ammonium nitrate that had been kept in poor condition at the port for years. Haitham, a 33-year-old worker at a company at the port, told AFP how he fled the fire as fast as he could.

"We were working when all of a sudden they started yelling at us to get out," he said. "There was welding going on... and a fire broke out. We don't know what happened.

"We dropped everything and started running... It reminded us of the explosion."

Interim port chief Bassem Al Kaissi told local the LBC television channel that the blaze started in the free zone, where an importer had stocked cooking oil containers and tyres.

The fire "started with oil containers before moving on to the tyres," he said. "It was either caused by the heat or by a mistake. It's too early to say."

- 'Can't take this much trauma' -

Civil Defence chief Raymond Khattar said putting out the fire was taking longer because it was rubber and oil burning.

"Flammable materials like this take time to be completely extinguished," he said.

The Lebanese Red Cross said one person was being treated after inhaling smoke.

A judicial source told AFP the public prosecutor had tasked "all security agencies to conduct the necessary investigations and determine the type of materials burnt and the causes of the fire breaking out".

President Michel Aoun summoned a meeting of the Supreme Defence Council to discuss to fire, his office said.

Social media users posted video footage of the blaze, which unsettled Beirut residents only just recovering from the country's deadliest peacetime disaster.

"Insane fire at the port, causing a panic all across Beirut. We just can't catch a break," Human Rights Watch researcher Aya Majzoub wrote on Twitter.

"We can't take this much trauma," another user wrote.

The August 4 blast sparked widespread outrage after it emerged authorities had been aware for years of the presence of the huge stockpile of ammonium nitrate that blew up.

The scandal forced the government to resign.

- 'Crime scene' -

Thursday's blaze comes just two days after another smaller fire at the port, which the army said took hold of a mix of rubbish, wood and old tyres.

Criminology researcher Omar Nashabe tweeted about the latest disaster: "Where are we living?"

"This is the scene of the crime a month ago! Where is the judiciary? Where is the state? Where is responsibility?"

The August 4 blast had heaped new misery on Lebanese already battling the coronavirus pandemic and the country's worst economic crisis in decades, which has seen poverty rates double to more than half the population.

Lebanon has launched a probe into the blast, one off the biggest non-nuclear explosions ever, and arrested 25 suspects so far.

Among them are top port and customs officials, as well as Syrian workers who allegedly carried out welding hours before the explosion.

On Thursday, the lead investigating judge listened to the testimonies of caretaker transport and public works minister Michel Najjar and State Security agency head Tony Saliba, the National News Agency said.

Lebanon has rejected an international investigation into the explosion, but its probe is being aided by foreign experts, including from the American FBI and France.


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