21 AUG 2020
The chief of Lebanon’s customs agency has been arrested in connection with the deadly ammonium nitrate explosion at the Port of Beirut earlier this month.
Badri Daher, director general of the Lebanese Customs Administration, was questioned by judicial authorities in an extended session on Monday. He was placed under arrest after the interrogation, according to state-owned National News Agency.
The massive blast on August 4 devastated the center of the port and the surrounding waterfront, causing structural damage to buildings up to a mile away. 6,000 people were wounded and 180 fatalities have been recorded to date. An additional 30 people are still missing.
U.S. intelligence has assessed that the explosion was accidental, though extreme negligence is widely suspected. A cargo of 2,750 tonnes of explosives-grade ammonium nitrate arrived in Beirut in 2013 aboard an aging freighter, the Rhosus, which pulled into port for repairs. The vessel was detained for PSC deficiencies and her owner abandoned her. In 2014, the port moved the cargo ashore to Warehouse 12 on its grain silo pier for safekeeping. The cache stayed there until August 4, 2020, when a team of welders likely started a fire while trying to fix the warehouse’s security gaps.
The damage to Lebanon’s economy and society are striking. According to the U.N., 40,000 buildings in Beirut were damaged and about 70,000 people have been put out of work. Lebanon’s government has formally resigned, though President Michel Aoun has refused to step down and the same ministers remain in place in a “caretaker” capacity. Foreign experts are assisting Lebanese officials in the investigation into the circumstances of the blast, but Aoun has resisted calls for an internationally-led independent inquiry.
On Tuesday, Aoun denied that the U.S.-designated terrorist organization Hezbollah could have had any involvement in the timeline leading up to the explosion. “Impossible, but serious events like these light up spirits and imagination,” Aoun told Reuters.
Hezbollah is deeply intertwined with Lebanon’s economy and political system, and it has a “dominant but murky role” at the Port of Beirut, according to Brookings Institution fellow Jeffrey Feltman. The Iran-backed group has denied any connection to the storage of ammonium nitrate at the port.