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Analysts: Massive Beirut Blast Signals Government Failure to Protect

Lebanese soldiers search for survivors after a massive explosion in Beirut, Lebanon, Aug. 5, 2020.

Lebanon is not normally known as a place where terrible safety violations occur. So, Tuesday’s massive explosion in Beirut’s strategic port, which has killed scores and has left thousands of others injured, and that has caused substantial structural damage, has many questioning why large quantities of a lethal chemical would be stored unsafely for six years in the center of the capital, close to homes, businesses and a major highway.

Lebanon’s prime minister, Hassan Diab, declared Wednesday a day of mourning, promising that those responsible would pay the price.

The Lebanese are reeling after the massive port explosion causing injury, death and destruction, saying that, for many, it is the last straw.

They say they are fed up with the country’s politicians, who have been running and ruining the country for the past 30 years. Professor Habib Malik of the Lebanese American University tells VOA that he and his family fled to their basement when they heard the terrifying explosion 7 kilometers away, just as they used to do during Lebanon’s deadly 1975-1990 civil war.

“This is a disaster. It’s yet another sign of the rotten, decrepit situation in which we find ourselves," Malik said. "It’s a puppet government and those who are holding the strings have zero interests in reforms.”

President Michel Aoun blamed the powerful blast on 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate, saying it was “unacceptable” that the lethal chemical was stored in a port warehouse for six years without safety measures.

Experts, like Anthony May, a retired explosives investigator with the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, told CNN that only two tons of ammonium nitrate caused the huge devastation in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.

He and other foreign security experts say, however, the massive pinkish-orange smoke plume seen from the explosion suggests that “military explosives” also were present, and May questioned why the materials were stored in such a vulnerable, but highly important site.

Muhanad Hage Ali of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut tells VOA the blame for this incident lies squarely at the government’s feet.

“This massive failure in protecting people is the basic tenet of any governance, and they failed that, and they failed that drastically," Ali said. "For many Lebanese this was a kind of event that encapsulated all the failures of the current system of governance, and those at the helm—the ruling elite basically—since the 1990s. This is a catastrophe, which is manmade, and it’s caused by a bunch of officials with no accountability. There is an inherent problem in the system, and this has become clear to the people of Lebanon more and more after this event.”

Lebanon’s powerful Catholic cardinal, Bechara Rai, has called on the international community to come to Lebanon’s aid without strings attached. But Hage Ali says that may be difficult for countries already struggling from the dire economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic.