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Cori Bush was attacked over BDS before election; she did not back down

Wed, 08/05/2020 - 21:44
Cori Bush was attacked over BDS before election; she did not back down
Days before defeating Congressman William Lacy Clay on Tuesday, Bush reaffirmed her commitment to Palestinian human rights
Ali Harb Wed, 08/05/2020 - 22:44
Cori Bush (AFP)
Cori Bush's campaign says she 'has always been sympathetic to the BDS movement' (AFP)

A few days before Cori Bush defeated 10-term Congressman William Lacy Clay, ending a political dynasty that represented St Louis in the House for more than a half century, she was attacked by the incumbent over her support for the right to boycott Israel.

Her response? Bush doubled down on backing the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. 

"Cori Bush has always been sympathetic to the BDS movement, and she stands in solidarity with the Palestinian people just as they have stood in solidarity with Black Americans fighting for their own lives," her campaign said in a statement on Saturday. 

She went on to shock the Democratic establishment and defeat Clay by a 3-percent margin on Tuesday. Palestinian rights advocates were quick to hail her victory, which they said proves that criticising Israel is no longer necessarily a costly stance in Democratic Party politics.

"Blind support for Israel now no longer is helping candidates, but is even becoming a hindrance for them," said Ariel Gold, national co-director of Code Pink, an anti-war feminist group.

Anti-BDS mailer

Earlier this week, Clay was accused of stoking Islamophobia by sending campaign literature featuring a photo of his opponent with Muslim-American activist Linda Sarsour that was critical of Bush over her stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The flyer, which underscored Clay's support for pro-Israel measures in Congress, described Sarsour as "an anti-Israel activist and a leader of the BDS movement in the United States".

Initial results on Tuesday showed a significant lead for Clay, before Bush claimed the race by a 3-percent margin in dramatic fashion before the end of the night.

After the results, Sarsour dubbed Clay's mailer featuring her an "epic fail".

Rashida Tlaib wins re-election race with ease
Read More »

"Any consultant who wants to run an anti-BDS, anti-Palestinian comms/voter outreach strategy in this political era should be fired. Rookies, I tell ya. Save your $$$," she wrote on Twitter. 

Bush's race coincided with Rashida Tlaib's primary victory. On Wednesday, the Palestinian-American lawmaker said "the Squad" - a group of progressive legislators - is "only getting bigger".

Late in June, left-wing challenger Jamaal Bowman defeated longtime staunchly pro-Israel senior Democratic Congressman Eliot Engel.

Gold said recent results do not bode well for pro-Israel groups.

"I think what we're looking at now is the future. There was a lot of talk when the Squad came in that this was possibly just a fluke, and we see two years later, it is not a fluke," Gold told MEE.

"This is the direction that the Democratic Party is taking, and establishment Dems need to get on board or they're going to find themselves ousted by progressives."

Palestinian-Black solidarity

Bush, a nurse, pastor and activist who was one of the leading organisers of the protests in Ferguson, Missouri, after the shooting of Michael Brown in 2014, first ran against Clay in 2018. 

She fell short by about 20 percent of the votes. But with progressives gaining momentum, aided by the endorsements from Senator Bernie Sanders and triumphant challenger Bowman, she closed the gap on Tuesday.

'People are powerfully connecting the dots between shared struggles against racism and oppression'

- Rasha Mubarak, Palestinian-American activist

The incumbent was elected to Congress the first time in 2000, succeeding his father Bill Clay, who had held the seat for 32 years. And while the elder Clay was one of the founders of the Congressional Black Caucus, Bush will be the first African-American woman to represent Missouri in Congress. 

After winning the primary, she is almost certain to be elected to the House of Representatives in the overwhelmingly Democratic district in November.

Palestinian-American activist Rasha Mubarak said Bush understands that freedom must be demanded for all oppressed people without exception.

"When people talk about health care and clean water and climate justice, you can't leave Palestine out of the equation, and I think Cori Bush represents what it means to fight for justice for all," Mubarak told MEE.

Mubarak added that the congresswoman-to-be brings a long history of Palestinian-Black solidarity from activist circles to the halls of Congress, along with Tlaib. "People are powerfully connecting the dots between shared struggles against racism and oppression," she said.

Washington
Cori Bush was attacked over BDS before election. She went on to win

Beirut explosion: 'Some of the dead will not be found'

Wed, 08/05/2020 - 18:12
Beirut explosion: 'Some of the dead will not be found'
With at least 130 dead and 5,000 wounded, many Beirut residents are helping in rescue efforts while picking up pieces of their beloved city
Adam Chamseddine Wed, 08/05/2020 - 19:12
People help clean damaged Beirut neighbourhood of Gemmayze on 5 August (AFP)

Residents on Wednesday began clearing away glass and rubble strewn across Beirut - a city left devastated by a massive explosion that ripped through the Lebanese capital on Tuesday, killing at least 135 people and injuring more than 5,000.

Elie, the owner of a restaurant in Gemmayze, a trendy residential and commercial neighbourhood of Beirut that was hit hard by the blast, arrived early to see what was left. 

'I know many of my colleagues are dead, I am just trying to find what is left of their bodies so that their family can have proper funerals and burials'

- Mohamad, local firefighter

The scene looked like a war zone, but at least none of his employees were hurt, he said. 

"It's a miracle we're still alive, many restaurants in the area are mourning their colleagues," Elie told Middle East Eye, after taking some time to assess the level of destruction. 

Those walking the streets of Gemmayze and nearby Mar Mikhael shared the same sentiment, comparing the once-fashionable area to that of a conflict zone, completely transformed by debris. 

The two neighbourhoods were damaged due to their proximity to Beirut port, but everyone in the city was impacted in one way or another. Some lost loved ones, while others were still recovering from injuries. 

'Nowhere to be found'

Much like the night before, blood still soaked the floors of the American University of Beirut and Hotel Dieu hospitals when MEE visited the facilities the morning after the explosion. 

Some people were still circling the buildings, looking for relatives missing in the blast. 

Fatima had been searching desperately for her fiance, who works at the port, since the explosion at about 6pm local time on Tuesday. 

Beirut explosion: Homes and hotels offer shelter to victims of the blast
Read More »

"I have contacted all of the hospitals and he is nowhere to be found," she told MEE.

Port workers and security personnel are among the bulk of the missing. 

Mohamad, one of the firefighters who hadn't left the blast site since shortly after the explosion, told MEE that at this point, he fears he is looking for remains, rather than survivors.  

"I know many of my colleagues are dead; I am just trying to find what is left of their bodies so that their families can have proper funerals and burials," he said. 

A security source with the Lebanese intelligence service, who preferred not to be identified, told MEE that it is likely many of those lost will never be recovered. 

"Some of the dead will not be found, but those who were in close radius of the explosion have
evaporated," the security source said.

About 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate was stored at the port's warehouse number 12, after being confiscated in 2014.

Ammonium nitrate: What is it and how did it get to Beirut's port?

+ Show - Hide

There are still many details surrounding the cause of the explosion that devastated much of Beirut on Tuesday that remain murky and unexplained.

However, the Lebanese government has so far indicated that they believe the enormous blast to have been the result of 2,700 tonnes of the chemical compound ammonium nitrate left lying in a warehouse in Beirut port since 2013.

Middle East Eye has compiled a quick guide to the destructive compound and the circumstances surrounding its fateful detonation on Tuesday.

What is ammonium nitrate?

Ammonium nitrate is an industrial chemical commonly used for fertilisers, but also as an explosive, often used in mining.

The chemical, known by the formula NH4NO3, is a naturally white crystalline solid and is often known as saltpetre.

Under most conditions ammonium nitrate is not necessarily dangerous and is relatively stable - it can even be used to smother a fire.

However, if contaminated it can become highly volatile.

What previous incidents have there been?

The most notorious confirmed ammonium nitrate explosion prior to Tuesday was the 1947 Texas City Disaster.

On 16 April 1947, at the Port of Texas City, 2,300 tonnes of ammonium nitrate exploded, killing almost 500 people.

More than 5,000 people were injured and at least 1,000 buildings levelled in the surrounding area.

It was the deadliest industrial accident in US history and resulted in the first-class action lawsuit against the US government on behalf of 8,485 victims.

A more recent incident involving ammonium nitrate took place in 2015 when a series of explosions at a chemical plant in the Chinese port city of Tianjin killed 173 people and injured 798.

Among the blasts at the port was the detonation of 800 tonnes of ammonium nitrate.

Eventually Chinese courts handed jail sentences to 49 government officials and warehouse executives and staff over their involvement in circumventing and loosening safety standards enabling the storage of dangerous chemicals.

How did the chemical end up in the port?

The chemicals originally arrived at Beirut's port on board a Russian-owned cargo vessel flying a Moldovan flag in September 2013.

The shipping monitoring organisation ShipArrested.com at the time reported that "upon inspection of the vessel by Port State Control, the vessel was forbidden from sailing. Most crew except the master and four crew members were repatriated and shortly afterwards the vessel was abandoned by her owners after charterers and cargo concern lost interest in the cargo".

According to documents posted online and seen by Al Jazeera, the ship's dangerous cargo was then offloaded and placed in hangar 12.

Numerous letters were reportedly sent by customs officials, including former director of Lebanese customs Shafik Merhi, to judges between 2014 and 2017 asking for guidance on what to do with the chemicals.

One letter sent in 2016 - which noted there had been "no reply" to previous requests - said the ammonium nitrate was being kept in "unsuitable" conditions.

"In view of the serious danger of keeping these goods in the hangar in unsuitable climatic conditions, we reaffirm our request to please request the marine agency to re-export these goods immediately to preserve the safety of the port and those working in it, or to look into agreeing to sell this amount," said the letter.

Another letter was sent by Lebanese customs administration director general Badri Daher on 27 October 2017 urging a resolution to the situation, in light of "the danger ... of leaving these goods in the place they are, and to those working there".

Local sources said that a malfunction had occurred with one of the warehouse's gates and technicians were called to fix the problem by welding.

Sparks caused the warehouse to catch fire, which led to a massive explosion when the blaze hit the ammonium nitrate. 

'Death is what's common'

MEE toured different areas in Beirut, talking with citizens who witnessed the disaster. 

The buildings were heavily damaged on Hamra Street, about 10 to 15km away from the blast site. Marwan, a retail shop owner, said that at the time of the explosion, he and his neighbours thought it had occurred there, not the port, because the shockwave was felt so intensely. 

'Tuesday at 6pm, Beirut no longer had a port, but rather a new mass graveyard'

- Local journalist

The magnitude of the explosion seemed to make everyone in Beirut feel as if the blast had happened nearby.

One of Marwan's friends, a port worker, died at the hospital after sustaining serious injuries.

"He worked in one of the shipping companies at the port. I was told he was injured, [but] when I arrived at the hospital yesterday he was declared dead," he said.

Marwan seemed at ease talking about his friend's death. When asked if he was still in shock, he said that was just the way in Lebanon. "It seems that in this country we only live by mistake, and death is what's common," he said.  

One scene seemed to be repeated across the city: People cleaning glass from the streets while expressing relief for other's safety and offering condolences for the deceased.

'A new mass graveyard'

One local reporter told MEE that since last night he had taken on the role of medic in addition to journalist, as he walked the streets of Beirut.  

Beirut explosion: How to help
Read More »

The disaster was too big to be handled only by first responders, he said. 

"While we were moving from the Gemmayze to Mar Mkhayel, we were stopped by a woman, begging us to help her bring down her elderly mother who was still stuck on the 5th floor," he said, adding that the woman had tried to call emergency teams but everyone was too busy attending to the dead and wounded. 

Another journalist said that when he arrived at the scene of the blast, shortly after it had taken place, a soldier warned him not to step on any bodies.

"I stopped and looked around, and I realised I was surrounded by dead bodies that were so covered by mud and soil, [that] I couldn't [tell they were] dead bodies," he said.  

"Tuesday at 6pm, Beirut no longer had a port, but rather a new mass graveyard," he added.

Beirut
Beirut digs for survivors as casualty figures rise

Beirut explosion: Hospitals struggle to cope as injured Lebanese walk streets

Wed, 08/05/2020 - 17:30
Beirut explosion: Hospitals struggle to cope as injured Lebanese walk streets
Hospitals already grappling with a coronavirus outbreak struggle to cope as injured flock to seek treatment
Jonathan Dagher Wed, 08/05/2020 - 18:30
A patient carried on a stretcher at Hotel Dieu de France in Lebanon's Ashrafieh district
A patient being taken in on a stretcher at Hotel Dieu de France in Lebanon's Ashrafieh district (MEE/Jonathan Dagher)

As the red smoke from a massive chemical explosion swept over Beirut on Wednesday, hospitals were overwhelmed with patients, as medical staff, already grappling with the coronavirus pandemic, rallied to tend to the wounded.

Three hospitals visited by Middle East Eye were full to capacity following Tuesday's explosion, which, so far, has claimed at least 135 lives and injured more than 5,000.

Scenes upon entering the St George's hospital were horrific. Some of the wounded were being rushed to emergency rooms, while others carried visible injuries while waiting to be seen - bandages seeped with blood, some with fresh stitches, as others groaned in agony in wheelchairs.

Ammonium nitrate: What is it and how did it get to Beirut's port?

+ Show - Hide

There are still many details surrounding the cause of the explosion that devastated much of Beirut on Tuesday that remain murky and unexplained.

However, the Lebanese government has so far indicated that they believe the enormous blast to have been the result of 2,700 tonnes of the chemical compound ammonium nitrate left lying in a warehouse in Beirut port since 2013.

Middle East Eye has compiled a quick guide to the destructive compound and the circumstances surrounding its fateful detonation on Tuesday.

What is ammonium nitrate?

Ammonium nitrate is an industrial chemical commonly used for fertilisers, but also as an explosive, often used in mining.

The chemical, known by the formula NH4NO3, is a naturally white crystalline solid and is often known as saltpetre.

Under most conditions ammonium nitrate is not necessarily dangerous and is relatively stable - it can even be used to smother a fire.

However, if contaminated it can become highly volatile.

What previous incidents have there been?

The most notorious confirmed ammonium nitrate explosion prior to Tuesday was the 1947 Texas City Disaster.

On 16 April 1947, at the Port of Texas City, 2,300 tonnes of ammonium nitrate exploded, killing almost 500 people.

More than 5,000 people were injured and at least 1,000 buildings levelled in the surrounding area.

It was the deadliest industrial accident in US history and resulted in the first-class action lawsuit against the US government on behalf of 8,485 victims.

A more recent incident involving ammonium nitrate took place in 2015 when a series of explosions at a chemical plant in the Chinese port city of Tianjin killed 173 people and injured 798.

Among the blasts at the port was the detonation of 800 tonnes of ammonium nitrate.

Eventually Chinese courts handed jail sentences to 49 government officials and warehouse executives and staff over their involvement in circumventing and loosening safety standards enabling the storage of dangerous chemicals.

How did the chemical end up in the port?

The chemicals originally arrived at Beirut's port on board a Russian-owned cargo vessel flying a Moldovan flag in September 2013.

The shipping monitoring organisation ShipArrested.com at the time reported that "upon inspection of the vessel by Port State Control, the vessel was forbidden from sailing. Most crew except the master and four crew members were repatriated and shortly afterwards the vessel was abandoned by her owners after charterers and cargo concern lost interest in the cargo".

According to documents posted online and seen by Al Jazeera, the ship's dangerous cargo was then offloaded and placed in hangar 12.

Numerous letters were reportedly sent by customs officials, including former director of Lebanese customs Shafik Merhi, to judges between 2014 and 2017 asking for guidance on what to do with the chemicals.

One letter sent in 2016 - which noted there had been "no reply" to previous requests - said the ammonium nitrate was being kept in "unsuitable" conditions.

"In view of the serious danger of keeping these goods in the hangar in unsuitable climatic conditions, we reaffirm our request to please request the marine agency to re-export these goods immediately to preserve the safety of the port and those working in it, or to look into agreeing to sell this amount," said the letter.

Another letter was sent by Lebanese customs administration director general Badri Daher on 27 October 2017 urging a resolution to the situation, in light of "the danger ... of leaving these goods in the place they are, and to those working there".

The building itself, less than a kilometre from the blast site, bore fresh scars of the tragedy, with the ceiling of the hospital lobby having caved in. Shattered glass was everywhere.

According to authorities, roughly 80 percent of the facility was damaged.

George Saad, responsible for Emergency Preparedness and Disaster Management at the hospital, said the blast killed at least 17 people at the hospital, including four nurses and 12 patients who were being treated for other ailments. The explosion also injured at least 160 people in the facility.

"It's a total disaster," Saad told Middle East Eye.

The roof at the St George Hospital in Beirut completely collapsed from the explosion on Tuesday.
The roof at the St George Hospital in Beirut collapsed in the explosion on Tuesday (MEE/Jonathan Dagher)

The Lebanese government has blamed Tuesday's explosion on a mammoth quantity of a chemical compound being housed at Beirut's port. 

According to security personnel on duty at the time, the blast was so fierce they "felt the earth shake" before the seismic shock hit.

The scale of the disaster was laid bare when the Lebanese Red Cross put out an urgent call for blood donations, saying every blood type was needed.

Despite the destruction at the hospital, surviving medical staff were still treating incoming survivors late on Wednesday and said they had received some 300 patients.

Patients with visible injuries sit down after being treated at Hotel Dieu de France.
Patients with visible injuries wait after being treated at Hotel Dieu de France (MEE/Jonathan Dagher)

Jeitaoui Hospital, located less than two kilometres from Beirut port, received minor damage but was also welcoming patients.

At least 12 people at the hospital had died in the blast, according to Rita Khalifeh, a nurse at the emergency room here.

Hotel Dieu de France - one of the leading medical centres in Lebanon - reported admitting 500 people in the past 24 hours.

No fewer than 50 patients immediately underwent critical operations, while 13 were registered as dead on arrival.

This hospital - which had been geared up to treat Covid-19 patients - has received the largest number of patients from the explosion, with 150 being moved to the emergency room for more serious injuries, authorities said.

Fewer ambulances were said to have been arriving at the facility later on Wednesday, but as the head of the emergency room told MEE the department could not accept any more patients, they were rushed to attend to a woman admitted for urgent care.

A young man stood in the emergency room, bandages wrapped around his head and a cast around his leg, eating a man'ousheh - a flatbread snack - while visibly in shock and distress from the horror he had experienced.

Doctors and medical staff said they had been on shift treating patients since 7am on Tuesday, and were continuing to work as of Wednesday evening.

Medical staff at Jeitaoui Hospital in Beirut.
Medical staff at Jeitaoui Hospital in Beirut (MEE/Jonathan Dagher)

Antoine Zoghbi, the head of the hospital, pleaded for external assistance and resources. He also noted patients and visitors had probably been exposed to the coronavirus since the blast, and that staff were taking precautions to continue fighting the spread of the virus.

The hospital is capable of providing much needed care to patients, with equipment still available, "but we need to be careful", he said.

Many injured patients were transferred to hospitals outside of the capital, including south to the city of Saida and to hospitals in the Mount Lebanon governorate.

Lebanon's pharmacists' union has also asked all pharmacies to open in order to treat those with minor injuries, so more space could be freed up in hospitals for those with serious injuries.

Beirut
'Total disaster': Hospitals struggle to cope as injured Lebanese walk streets

UAE: Huge fire breaks out at marketplace in Ajman

Wed, 08/05/2020 - 17:28
UAE: Huge fire breaks out at marketplace in Ajman
Cause of blaze not yet known, but local reports say it originated at Iranian souq in city
MEE staff Wed, 08/05/2020 - 18:28
Firefighters battled blaze at souq in Ajman for more than two hours (Reuters)

After working for hours, first responders managed to put out a big fire that seemed to span an entire city block in Ajman city, capital of the emirate of Ajman in the United Arab Emirates, the head of the local police force said. 

The fire, which began on Wednesday evening, may have started in an Iranian souq, or marketplace, according to the National, a UAE-based newspaper, but the cause of the blaze was not yet known. 

The site is in an industrial area near a speciality hospital and a fruit and vegetable market. 

The newspaper said that the hospital had been evacuated. 

A massive blaze has consumed a popular market in Ajman, UAE. pic.twitter.com/3AsGzp5erA

— Ian Miles Cheong (@stillgray) August 5, 2020

No casualties were reported, probably because the souq had been closed for several months amid coronavirus restrictions, police chief Sheikh Sultan bin Abdullah al-Nuaimi said in a statement, as cited by Reuters. 

Still, parts of the market had collapsed, completely burnt in the blaze, Nuaimi said.

Earlier, Khaleej Times, another local newspaper, said firefighters had cordoned off the site and were using water and foam extinguishers to control the blaze.

"Four civil defence centres are involved in fighting the big inferno," the newspaper quoted officials as saying.

Beirut explosion: Pentagon chief contradicts Trump, says blast was an 'accident'

Wed, 08/05/2020 - 16:45
Beirut explosion: Pentagon chief contradicts Trump, says blast was an 'accident'
Three defence officials say they are unaware of where president got indication incident was 'terrible attack'
MEE staff Wed, 08/05/2020 - 17:45
Lebanese soldiers stand guard while a helicopter puts out a fire at the scene of the explosion
Lebanese soldiers stand guard as helicopter battles fire at scene of explosion at Beirut's port on 4 August (AFP)

US Defence Secretary Mark Esper said on Wednesday that the devastating explosion in Beirut was an "accident", contradicting a claim made by President Donald Trump that it was "a terrible attack".

"Most believe that it was an accident, as reported, and beyond that, I have nothing further to report on. It's obviously a tragedy," Esper said during a virtual interview at the Aspen Security Forum on Wednesday.

Offering no evidence during a news conference on Tuesday, the US president said the blast in Beirut, which killed at least 100 and injured thousands, seemed to be "a terrible attack". 

In pictures: Aftermath of the Beirut explosion
Read More »

While Lebanese officials reported the blast was caused by a confiscated 2,700 tonne stockpile of ammonium nitrate at the city's main port, Trump said US generals believed the explosion was caused by a "bomb of some kind".

"I met with some of our great generals and they just seem to feel that it was [an attack]; this was not some kind of a manufacturing explosion type of event. This seems to be - according to them, they would know better than I would - but they seem to think it was [an] attack," Trump said. 

Three additional defence officials said there was no indication of an "attack", CNN reported.

The officials, who declined to be identified so they could speak freely, said they were unaware of where the president may have gotten such an indication. 

One official said if there had been real concern that such an attack had taken place, it would have immediately triggered an automatic increase in force protection for US troops and assets in the region for several reasons, including fears of retribution attacks, CNN reported. 

That official noted that none of that had happened so far, the news agency said. 

Neither the White House nor the Pentagon responded to Middle East Eye's requests for comments. 

Following Trump's remarks, Lebanese officials raised concerns with US diplomats, unnerved by the US president's use of the word "attack", two State Department officials told CNN.

The State Department has not commented on the nature of Tuesday's explosion, and a news briefing scheduled for Wednesday was postponed until Thursday. 

On Tuesday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo confirmed that the Lebanese government was investigating the cause of the blast, adding that the US looks forward to outcome of that inquiry.

Ammonium nitrate: What is it and how did it get to Beirut's port?

+ Show - Hide

There are still many details surrounding the cause of the explosion that devastated much of Beirut on Tuesday that remain murky and unexplained.

However, the Lebanese government has so far indicated that they believe the enormous blast to have been the result of 2,700 tonnes of the chemical compound ammonium nitrate left lying in a warehouse in Beirut port since 2013.

Middle East Eye has compiled a quick guide to the destructive compound and the circumstances surrounding its fateful detonation on Tuesday.

What is ammonium nitrate?

Ammonium nitrate is an industrial chemical commonly used for fertilisers, but also as an explosive, often used in mining.

The chemical, known by the formula NH4NO3, is a naturally white crystalline solid and is often known as saltpetre.

Under most conditions ammonium nitrate is not necessarily dangerous and is relatively stable - it can even be used to smother a fire.

However, if contaminated it can become highly volatile.

What previous incidents have there been?

The most notorious confirmed ammonium nitrate explosion prior to Tuesday was the 1947 Texas City Disaster.

On 16 April 1947, at the Port of Texas City, 2,300 tonnes of ammonium nitrate exploded, killing almost 500 people.

More than 5,000 people were injured and at least 1,000 buildings levelled in the surrounding area.

It was the deadliest industrial accident in US history and resulted in the first-class action lawsuit against the US government on behalf of 8,485 victims.

A more recent incident involving ammonium nitrate took place in 2015 when a series of explosions at a chemical plant in the Chinese port city of Tianjin killed 173 people and injured 798.

Among the blasts at the port was the detonation of 800 tonnes of ammonium nitrate.

Eventually Chinese courts handed jail sentences to 49 government officials and warehouse executives and staff over their involvement in circumventing and loosening safety standards enabling the storage of dangerous chemicals.

How did the chemical end up in the port?

The chemicals originally arrived at Beirut's port on board a Russian-owned cargo vessel flying a Moldovan flag in September 2013.

The shipping monitoring organisation ShipArrested.com at the time reported that "upon inspection of the vessel by Port State Control, the vessel was forbidden from sailing. Most crew except the master and four crew members were repatriated and shortly afterwards the vessel was abandoned by her owners after charterers and cargo concern lost interest in the cargo".

According to documents posted online and seen by Al Jazeera, the ship's dangerous cargo was then offloaded and placed in hangar 12.

Numerous letters were reportedly sent by customs officials, including former director of Lebanese customs Shafik Merhi, to judges between 2014 and 2017 asking for guidance on what to do with the chemicals.

One letter sent in 2016 - which noted there had been "no reply" to previous requests - said the ammonium nitrate was being kept in "unsuitable" conditions.

"In view of the serious danger of keeping these goods in the hangar in unsuitable climatic conditions, we reaffirm our request to please request the marine agency to re-export these goods immediately to preserve the safety of the port and those working in it, or to look into agreeing to sell this amount," said the letter.

Another letter was sent by Lebanese customs administration director general Badri Daher on 27 October 2017 urging a resolution to the situation, in light of "the danger ... of leaving these goods in the place they are, and to those working there".

Lebanon's Interior Ministry said it was not seeking international assistance with its investigation, but on Wednesday, Amnesty International called on the country to allow outside investigators to take part in the probe.

"Whatever may have caused the explosion, including the possibility of a large amount of ammonium nitrate stored unsafely, Amnesty International is calling for an international mechanism to be promptly set up to investigate how this happened," said Julie Verhaar, acting secretary-general of Amnesty International.

Esper also said that Washington had reached out to the Lebanese government to offer assistance, including humanitarian and medical aid.

"We're positioning ourselves to provide them whatever assistance we can, humanitarian and medical supplies," he said. "It's the right thing to do."

US defence officials contradict Trump, no indication of 'attack' in Beirut

Imprisoned Algerian businessman hires lobbyist linked to Trump

Wed, 08/05/2020 - 14:17
Imprisoned Algerian businessman hires lobbyist linked to Trump
Contract seen as avenue for Ali Haddad's sentence to be commuted if relationship between Algeria and US develops
Yasmina Allouche Wed, 08/05/2020 - 15:17
Haddad, listed as the fifth richest person in Algeria, is the founder and CEO of construction firm Road, Hydraulic and Building Works Company (Ryad Kramdi/AFP)

A month since being sentenced to 18 years in prison on corruption charges, one of Algeria’s richest figures, Ali Haddad, has hired the services of a lobbyist linked to US President Donald Trump. 

The founder of the Sonoran Public Group, Robert Stryk, made a fortune in 2016 after being the West Coast adviser for Trump‘s presidential campaign. 

The year-long contract with Sonoran Public Group, which cost $10m, was signed on 26 July, just weeks after Haddad was handed the lengthy sentence, and will include “business and personal advisory services” as well as “other services on an agreed-upon basis”. 

Algeria: Former Bouteflika allies given heavy jail terms in corruption trials
Read More »

In addition to the $10m, the contract requires Haddad to reimburse "all reasonable and customary expenses and travel expenses incurred by [the firm] in the course of the performance of this contract".

US law requires American citizens to register as "foreign agents" when signing lobbying contracts such as the one with Haddad, facilitating "the assessment by the government and the American people of the statements and activities of these individuals".

The contract has been viewed by analysts as a way for Haddad to place himself in influential US circles so that he is best placed to negotiate his future in the event Algeria seeks better relations with the US, as well the hope of seeing his sentence commuted at some point, particularly if concerns are raised around the fairness of the judicial process. 

"Haddad wants to use what’s left of his money to influence [Washington] DC policymakers with the belief that they would advocate on his behalf with the Algerian authorities," Zine Labidine Ghebouli, a researcher with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told MEE.

"In my opinion, it’s first a sign that while allegedly corrupt Algerian businessmen are in prison, their financial assets are still working.

"This is exactly why Haddad has used the US lobbyist; he wants to use the system’s weakness during anti-corruption trials to get out of prison."

Powerful influence

Haddad, listed as the fifth richest person in Algeria, is the founder and CEO of construction firm Road, Hydraulic and Building Works Company (ETRHB), and the former head of the Business Leaders Forum in Algeria, which has amassed $2bn in contracts since it began in 1997. 

Haddad enjoyed operating from a place of privilege as a member of former president Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s close circle of oligarchs, ministers, generals and family members, who all had influence in the decision-making process.

Haddad's influence was visible on several occasions, for example, in 2017 then presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron included him on his election campaign visit's itinerary.

In 2017, Haddad was able to exert pressure on Bouteflika to ensure current president, Abdelmadjid Tebboune, was sacked from his role as prime minister after only three months in the role after attempting to introduce policies which separated money from the state, impacting the ventures of businessmen like Haddad. 

Three years later, Tebboune would go on to become president after months of nationwide protests, which began after Bouteflika announced his bid for a fifth term despite his ailing state.

With many in the country viewing Tebboune’s presidency as illegitimate following a controversial election process in which the candidates were predetermined by the military, headed by the late army chief Ahmed Gaid Saleh, the crackdown on corruption under Bouteflika’s 20-year presidency is viewed more by analysts as a settling of scores than a genuine process of justice. 

“Were Haddad an activist or engaged in civil society in some way I think that there would be a greater likelihood that the US would become involved in trying to have his sentences commuted,” Geoff Porter, president of the North Africa Risk Consulting firm, told Middle East Eye.

“However, he is charged with serious crimes including corruption and embezzlement and the US (either Congress or the Trump administration) likely supports President Tebboune's efforts to address waste, fraud, and abuse in Algeria.” 

'Political prosecution'

Haddad has been in prison since March 2019 and is accused of receiving $16bn worth of bank loans for projects secured through backdoor dealings.

As well as imprisonment for Haddad and his brothers, the family's assets have also been seized by the state. 

Algeria buries remains of anti-colonial fighters repatriated from France
Read More »

Their lawyers believe the sentencing is “political prosecution” against members of the old regime who are “paying the price for now being defeated”.  

Haddad last visited Washington in January 2019 when he called for furthering the relationship between the two countries after meeting several business leaders to discuss partnership opportunities. 

Controversy has often followed Haddad. He was named in the Panama Papers after appearing to be an economic beneficiary of a company registered by Mossack Fonseca in November 2004 in the British Virgin Islands. 

He was also the centre of anger last year from players and fans of the first division football club, Algiers Medina Sports Union, which he owned from 2010 until his imprisonment, after players were forced to wait months for their pay following the freezing of his accounts.

This is not the first time the lobby firm has represented controversial Middle East and North Africa clients. In 2017, it secured a $5.4m contract from Saudi Arabia’s interior ministry, but it was terminated a few weeks later following the palace coup led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Stryk’s firm has also worked for Kuwaiti oil magnate Saud Abdul Aziz al-Arfaj under a $1.2m deal to “provide promotion and counsel” regarding a disputed oil region between Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, and secured a $500,000-a-year contract with the Embassy of Bahrain in Washington in 2018 to lobby Congress and the Trump administration. 

Sonoran also reportedly signed a $1.25m contract with Israeli firm Mer Security and Communication Systems in July 2018 to lobby on behalf of the Congolese government facing US sanctions for human rights abuses and corruption.

Ailing economy

Algeria ranks eightieth among US trade partners, with trade rising to $528.8m through the first five months of 2020, 56.49 percent below its total trade during the same time period last year.

US exports to Algeria increased 15.93 percent while US imports from Algeria fell 73.2 percent over the same period. The US deficit with Algeria stands at $1.48bn.

With the economic situation increasingly dire in Algeria and a politically weak state, the country may start looking outward by improving on its trade agreements with economic heavyweights like the US in order to offset the damage brought on from the predicted economic crash.

Last month, Prime Minister Abdelaziz Djerad announced over $1bn in losses in the public sector alone, affecting mainly the transport and energy sectors, on top of falling oil prices which have caused unprecedented damage to Algeria’s economy. 

According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Algeria’s economy will shrink by 5.2 percent this year, and will have one of the highest budget deficits in the region.

In keeping with the country’s traditional policy against the accumulation of foreign debt, seen as  harming national sovereignty, Tebboune has ruled out the option of an IMF loan.

Beirut explosion: How the port blast will hit Lebanon's economy

Wed, 08/05/2020 - 12:48
Beirut explosion: How the port blast will hit Lebanon's economy
Disaster spells catastrophe for country's much-needed imports and will likely hit the already flagging currency, experts tell MEE
Paul Cochrane Wed, 08/05/2020 - 13:48
The scene of the explosion in Beirut port, with the ruined grain silos seen in the background (AFP)

The huge explosion at Beirut’s port is a crippling blow to a country that had been reeling from a political and financial crisis, a depreciating currency and the Covid-19 pandemic. Economic damage from the blast is being estimated in the billions of dollars.

“It’s hard to imagine the financial cost of this disaster, it is in the billions. The port is completely destroyed, and much of the city is damaged. Who will pay for the reconstruction of Beirut?” said Laury Haytayan, a Beirut-based expert at the National Resource Institute.

Beirut port, which was the epicentre of the explosion, is the country’s main logistics hub and its deepest sea port. 

'The disaster will have a dramatic impact on food security. Bread prices were already up, spiking food prices will go up further, and 50 percent of Lebanese are under the poverty line'

- Martin Keulertz, AUB

“It was the beating heart of the country as it provided around 80 percent of imported goods, which kept the economy moving,” said Sami Halabi, director of knowledge and co-founder of Triangle Consulting in Beirut.

The closure of the port threatens food security in the country, which is import reliant for an estimated 65-85 percent of food needs, according to a Triangle report. Some 15,000 tonnes of wheat had been stored at the port’s silos.

“The disaster will have a dramatic impact on food security. Bread prices were already up, spiking food prices will go up further, and 50 percent of Lebanese are under the poverty line. This is the perfect storm over the next several months,” said Martin Keulertz, assistant professor in the food security programme at the American University of Beirut.

The country’s second port, in Tripoli 80km north of the capital, is significantly smaller than Beirut’s and will struggle to handle additional cargo volumes.

“Tripoli is not really fitted out to deal with the amount of food imports needed. There is an absolute urgency to import, and the government doesn’t have the foreign currency to do that,” said Halabi.

A third shock

The disaster is the third shock to hit the country since protests erupted in October 2019, and the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

Despite banks imposing informal capital controls to limit cash withdrawals, over $25bn has flowed out of the country over the past year, while the Lebanese lira has depreciated by around 80 percent to the US dollar. Public debt has also skyrocketed to $92bn, equivalent to over 170 percent of GDP.

Ammonium nitrate: What is it and how did it get to Beirut's port?

+ Show - Hide

There are still many details surrounding the cause of the explosion that devastated much of Beirut on Tuesday that remain murky and unexplained.

However, the Lebanese government has so far indicated that they believe the enormous blast to have been the result of 2,700 tonnes of the chemical compound ammonium nitrate left lying in a warehouse in Beirut port since 2013.

Middle East Eye has compiled a quick guide to the destructive compound and the circumstances surrounding its fateful detonation on Tuesday.

What is ammonium nitrate?

Ammonium nitrate is an industrial chemical commonly used for fertilisers, but also as an explosive, often used in mining.

The chemical, known by the formula NH4NO3, is a naturally white crystalline solid and is often known as saltpetre.

Under most conditions ammonium nitrate is not necessarily dangerous and is relatively stable - it can even be used to smother a fire.

However, if contaminated it can become highly volatile.

What previous incidents have there been?

The most notorious confirmed ammonium nitrate explosion prior to Tuesday was the 1947 Texas City Disaster.

On 16 April 1947, at the Port of Texas City, 2,300 tonnes of ammonium nitrate exploded, killing almost 500 people.

More than 5,000 people were injured and at least 1,000 buildings levelled in the surrounding area.

It was the deadliest industrial accident in US history and resulted in the first-class action lawsuit against the US government on behalf of 8,485 victims.

A more recent incident involving ammonium nitrate took place in 2015 when a series of explosions at a chemical plant in the Chinese port city of Tianjin killed 173 people and injured 798.

Among the blasts at the port was the detonation of 800 tonnes of ammonium nitrate.

Eventually Chinese courts handed jail sentences to 49 government officials and warehouse executives and staff over their involvement in circumventing and loosening safety standards enabling the storage of dangerous chemicals.

How did the chemical end up in the port?

The chemicals originally arrived at Beirut's port on board a Russian-owned cargo vessel flying a Moldovan flag in September 2013.

The shipping monitoring organisation ShipArrested.com at the time reported that "upon inspection of the vessel by Port State Control, the vessel was forbidden from sailing. Most crew except the master and four crew members were repatriated and shortly afterwards the vessel was abandoned by her owners after charterers and cargo concern lost interest in the cargo".

According to documents posted online and seen by Al Jazeera, the ship's dangerous cargo was then offloaded and placed in hangar 12.

Numerous letters were reportedly sent by customs officials, including former director of Lebanese customs Shafik Merhi, to judges between 2014 and 2017 asking for guidance on what to do with the chemicals.

One letter sent in 2016 - which noted there had been "no reply" to previous requests - said the ammonium nitrate was being kept in "unsuitable" conditions.

"In view of the serious danger of keeping these goods in the hangar in unsuitable climatic conditions, we reaffirm our request to please request the marine agency to re-export these goods immediately to preserve the safety of the port and those working in it, or to look into agreeing to sell this amount," said the letter.

Another letter was sent by Lebanese customs administration director general Badri Daher on 27 October 2017 urging a resolution to the situation, in light of "the danger ... of leaving these goods in the place they are, and to those working there".

With foreign currency having dried up, importers had been struggling to pay for goods, reflected in imports dropping by 50 percent this year, according to Lebanese Customs authority data.

The impact of the explosion on the economy could cause further falls in the lira, which has dropped from LL1,507 to the dollar to over LL8,000, which would make imports even more expensive.

“Once the markets open the lira will take a hit, but the extent of that is as yet unknown. Whatever local demand there was for lira, it is going to be dampened by people having even less economic prospects than before,” said Halabi.

Lebanese in Beirut Souks shopping mall inspect the damage in the aftermath of yesterday's blast (AFP)
Lebanese in Beirut Souks shopping mall inspect the damage in the aftermath of yesterday's blast (AFP)

The ongoing ramifications of the financial crisis will impede the economy’s ability to rebound from the explosion.

“How will businesses start up again when there are capital controls that don’t let people take money out of banks? And with a fluctuating black market rate for currency? It’s a complete disaster,” said Haytayan.

Across the board, the Lebanese economy has been on the decline, with construction permits down 60 percent, car sales down 70 percent and tourism down by half this year on 2019.

“Everything is at a standstill, and putting it all back together again will be difficult as many people had not taken out insurance to cover for this type of disaster, and the insurance companies are tied to the banking sector, which was in the doldrums due to the financial crisis,” said Halabi.

 “Many businesses will not recover.”

How the Beirut blast will hit Lebanon's economy

Beirut explosion: Homes and hotels offer shelter to victims of the blast

Wed, 08/05/2020 - 10:45
Beirut explosion: Homes and hotels offer shelter to victims of the blast
Individuals in Lebanon took to social media to offer up places to stay for those who had their homes heavily damaged
Nadda Osman Wed, 08/05/2020 - 11:45
People are using social media to open up their homes to victims of the explosions (Screengrab Instagram/AFP)

In the devastating aftermath of the shocking Beirut port explosion on Tuesday, thousands of people have been using social media to share details and offer up their homes to those who have been rendered homeless.

A huge explosion in a warehouse in Beirut’s port tore through Lebanon's capital on Tuesday evening, leaving thousands of homes damaged. 

An Instagram page called "Open Houses Lebanon" was set up hours after the explosion took place, sharing details of locations and contact numbers for those who have had their homes destroyed by the explosion.

Ammonium nitrate: What is it and how did it get to Beirut's port?

+ Show - Hide

There are still many details surrounding the cause of the explosion that devastated much of Beirut on Tuesday that remain murky and unexplained.

However, the Lebanese government has so far indicated that they believe the enormous blast to have been the result of 2,700 tonnes of the chemical compound ammonium nitrate left lying in a warehouse in Beirut port since 2013.

Middle East Eye has compiled a quick guide to the destructive compound and the circumstances surrounding its fateful detonation on Tuesday.

What is ammonium nitrate?

Ammonium nitrate is an industrial chemical commonly used for fertilisers, but also as an explosive, often used in mining.

The chemical, known by the formula NH4NO3, is a naturally white crystalline solid and is often known as saltpetre.

Under most conditions ammonium nitrate is not necessarily dangerous and is relatively stable - it can even be used to smother a fire.

However, if contaminated it can become highly volatile.

What previous incidents have there been?

The most notorious confirmed ammonium nitrate explosion prior to Tuesday was the 1947 Texas City Disaster.

On 16 April 1947, at the Port of Texas City, 2,300 tonnes of ammonium nitrate exploded, killing almost 500 people.

More than 5,000 people were injured and at least 1,000 buildings levelled in the surrounding area.

It was the deadliest industrial accident in US history and resulted in the first-class action lawsuit against the US government on behalf of 8,485 victims.

A more recent incident involving ammonium nitrate took place in 2015 when a series of explosions at a chemical plant in the Chinese port city of Tianjin killed 173 people and injured 798.

Among the blasts at the port was the detonation of 800 tonnes of ammonium nitrate.

Eventually Chinese courts handed jail sentences to 49 government officials and warehouse executives and staff over their involvement in circumventing and loosening safety standards enabling the storage of dangerous chemicals.

How did the chemical end up in the port?

The chemicals originally arrived at Beirut's port on board a Russian-owned cargo vessel flying a Moldovan flag in September 2013.

The shipping monitoring organisation ShipArrested.com at the time reported that "upon inspection of the vessel by Port State Control, the vessel was forbidden from sailing. Most crew except the master and four crew members were repatriated and shortly afterwards the vessel was abandoned by her owners after charterers and cargo concern lost interest in the cargo".

According to documents posted online and seen by Al Jazeera, the ship's dangerous cargo was then offloaded and placed in hangar 12.

Numerous letters were reportedly sent by customs officials, including former director of Lebanese customs Shafik Merhi, to judges between 2014 and 2017 asking for guidance on what to do with the chemicals.

One letter sent in 2016 - which noted there had been "no reply" to previous requests - said the ammonium nitrate was being kept in "unsuitable" conditions.

"In view of the serious danger of keeping these goods in the hangar in unsuitable climatic conditions, we reaffirm our request to please request the marine agency to re-export these goods immediately to preserve the safety of the port and those working in it, or to look into agreeing to sell this amount," said the letter.

Another letter was sent by Lebanese customs administration director general Badri Daher on 27 October 2017 urging a resolution to the situation, in light of "the danger ... of leaving these goods in the place they are, and to those working there".

More than 100 locations have been shared on the page, ranging from people’s homes, studios and bedrooms to schools and churches. 

The page also shared information about emergency veterinary clinics open to pets that sustained injuries due to the explosion. 

Marwan Abboud, Lebanon’s governor, estimated on Wednesday that around 200,000 to 250,000 people have lost their homes in the incident.

The blast has killed over 100 people and injured more than 4,000, according to the Lebanese Red Cross.

Many people have been left without food, water or shelter, as their main residence suffered severe damage.

Tremors of the explosion were felt far beyond Beirut, with many on social media saying it was heard in Cyprus which lies about 160km away. 

The hashtag #OurHomesAreOpen has also been used by people offering their homes for people to stay, as well as transport to move them in or out of the city to safer locations. 

A number of hotels that were spared by the explosion have also offered rooms for people.

As hospitals became inundated with patients, people also took to social media to share locations of blood banks in urgent need of donors. 

Please DM me if you or anyone you know needs shelter. My family home was not affected and is open. We can arrange for transport as well. #ourhomesareopen #Lebanonexplosion

— Joelle Eid (@joelleeid) August 4, 2020

The incident comes as Lebanon struggles with a crippling economic crisis, during which the Lebanese pound has lost 80 percent of its value in less than a year and food prices have doubled. The government had previously warned that 60 percent of the population could be living below the poverty line before the end of the year.

The Lebanese President, Michel Aoun, has called for an emergency cabinet meeting and said that a two-week state of emergency should be declared.

'Our homes are open': Homes and hotels offer shelter to victims of Beirut explosion

Beirut explosion: What is ammonium nitrate and how did it get to the port?

Wed, 08/05/2020 - 10:20
Beirut explosion: What is ammonium nitrate and how did it get to the port?
The dangerous chemical was left for six years in a warehouse despite pleas by custom officials for it to be moved
Alex MacDonald Wed, 08/05/2020 - 11:20
" class="video-embed-field-lazy container-element">

There are still many details surrounding the cause of the explosion that devastated much of Beirut on Tuesday that remain murky and unexplained.

However, the government in Lebanon has so far indicated that they believe the enormous blast to have been the result of 2,700 tonnes of the chemical compound ammonium nitrate left lying in a warehouse in Beirut port since 2013.

Middle East Eye has compiled a quick guide to the destructive compound and the circumstances surrounding its fateful detonation on Tuesday.

What is ammonium nitrate?

Ammonium nitrate is an industrial chemical commonly used for fertilisers, but also as an explosive, often used in mining.

The chemical, known by the formula NH4NO3, is a naturally white crystalline solid and is often known as saltpetre.

Under most conditions ammonium nitrate is not necessarily dangerous and is relatively stable - it can even be used to smother a fire.

However, if contaminated it can become highly volatile.

What previous incidents have there been?

The most notorious confirmed ammonium nitrate explosion prior to Tuesday was the 1947 Texas City Disaster.

On 16 April 1947, at the Port of Texas City, 2,300 tonnes of ammonium nitrate exploded, killing almost 500 people.

More than 5,000 people were injured and at least 1,000 buildings levelled in the surrounding area.

It was the deadliest industrial accident in US history and resulted in the first-class action lawsuit against the US government on behalf of 8,485 victims.

A more recent incident involving ammonium nitrate took place in 2015 when a series of explosions at a chemical plant in the Chinese port city of Tianjin killed 173 people and injured 798.

Among the blasts at the port was the detonation of 800 tonnes of ammonium nitrate.

Eventually Chinese courts handed jail sentences to 49 government officials and warehouse executives and staff over their involvement in circumventing and loosening safety standards enabling the storage of dangerous chemicals.

How did the chemical end up in the port?

The chemicals originally arrived at Beirut's port on board a Russian-owned cargo vessel flying a Moldovan flag in September 2013.

The shipping monitoring organisation ShipArrested.com at the time reported that "upon inspection of the vessel by Port State Control, the vessel was forbidden from sailing. Most crew except the master and four crew members were repatriated and shortly afterwards the vessel was abandoned by her owners after charterers and cargo concern lost interest in the cargo".

What happened in Beirut?
Read More »

According to documents posted online and seen by Al Jazeera, the ship's dangerous cargo was then offloaded and placed in hangar 12.

Numerous letters were reportedly sent by customs officials, including former director of Lebanese customs Shafik Merhi, to judges between 2014 and 2017 asking for guidance on what to do with the chemicals.

One letter sent in 2016 - which noted there had been "no reply" to previous requests - said the ammonium nitrate was being kept in "unsuitable" conditions.

"In view of the serious danger of keeping these goods in the hangar in unsuitable climatic conditions, we reaffirm our request to please request the marine agency to re-export these goods immediately to preserve the safety of the port and those working in it, or to look into agreeing to sell this amount," said the letter.

Another letter was sent by Lebanese customs administration director general Badri Daher on 27 October 2017 urging a resolution to the situation, in light of "the danger ... of leaving these goods in the place they are, and to those working there".

Ammonium nitrate: What is it and how did it get to Beirut's port?

Beirut explosion: How the world has responded

Wed, 08/05/2020 - 10:07
Beirut explosion: How the world has responded
Between messages of solidarity and offers of emergency assistance, here is how the international community has reacted to the deadly blast in Lebanon
MEE and agencies Wed, 08/05/2020 - 11:07
A ship is pictured engulfed in flames at the port of Beirut following a massive explosion that hit the heart of the Lebanese capital on 4 August, 2020 (AFP)

The international community has by and large expressed its solidarity with Lebanon after Tuesday’s explosion at a warehouse in the Beirut port that killed at least 100 people and injured nearly 4,000.

Below are details of how some countries reacted, and the aid they pledged to Lebanon:

France

President Emmanuel Macron's office said France would send 55 security personnel to Lebanon and six tonnes of health equipment, while around 10 emergency doctors would also fly to Beirut.

Live updates: Beirut wakes up to shattered city
Read More »

The French presidency announced on Wednesday that Macron would be heading to Beirut on Thursday.

"France is always on the side of Lebanon and the Lebanese people. It is ready to offer assistance depending on the needs expressed by Lebanese authorities," Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said on Twitter.

United States

President Donald Trump on Tuesday described the massive explosion as a possible attack, despite no immediate evidence corroborating this claim. Statements by Lebanese leaders have so far indicated that the blast was likely caused by highly explosive material that had been stored at warehouses in the capital for years.

"The United States stands ready to assist Lebanon," Trump said at a White House briefing of Tuesday's explosion.

"It looks like a terrible attack."

When asked later about his depiction of the explosion, Trump said that he had met with some US generals who felt the blast was not "some kind of a manufacturing explosion type of event". He told reporters that according to these unnamed generals "they seem to think it was an attack. It was a bomb of some kind."

The Pentagon referred questions to the White House.

Two US officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said it was unclear where Trump was receiving his information but that initial information did not appear to show that the explosion was an attack.

The officials said the information so far tracked closer to what Lebanese officials had publicly stated. They added that it was still early and could change as time went on.

United Kingdom

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Britain stood ready to provide any support it could to help Beirut.

"The pictures and videos from Beirut tonight are shocking," Johnson wrote on Twitter on Tuesday. "All of my thoughts and prayers are with those caught up in this terrible incident.

"The UK is ready to provide support in any way we can, including to those British nationals affected."

Ammonium nitrate: What is it and how did it get to Beirut's port?

+ Show - Hide

There are still many details surrounding the cause of the explosion that devastated much of Beirut on Tuesday that remain murky and unexplained.

However, the Lebanese government has so far indicated that they believe the enormous blast to have been the result of 2,700 tonnes of the chemical compound ammonium nitrate left lying in a warehouse in Beirut port since 2013.

Middle East Eye has compiled a quick guide to the destructive compound and the circumstances surrounding its fateful detonation on Tuesday.

What is ammonium nitrate?

Ammonium nitrate is an industrial chemical commonly used for fertilisers, but also as an explosive, often used in mining.

The chemical, known by the formula NH4NO3, is a naturally white crystalline solid and is often known as saltpetre.

Under most conditions ammonium nitrate is not necessarily dangerous and is relatively stable - it can even be used to smother a fire.

However, if contaminated it can become highly volatile.

What previous incidents have there been?

The most notorious confirmed ammonium nitrate explosion prior to Tuesday was the 1947 Texas City Disaster.

On 16 April 1947, at the Port of Texas City, 2,300 tonnes of ammonium nitrate exploded, killing almost 500 people.

More than 5,000 people were injured and at least 1,000 buildings levelled in the surrounding area.

It was the deadliest industrial accident in US history and resulted in the first-class action lawsuit against the US government on behalf of 8,485 victims.

A more recent incident involving ammonium nitrate took place in 2015 when a series of explosions at a chemical plant in the Chinese port city of Tianjin killed 173 people and injured 798.

Among the blasts at the port was the detonation of 800 tonnes of ammonium nitrate.

Eventually Chinese courts handed jail sentences to 49 government officials and warehouse executives and staff over their involvement in circumventing and loosening safety standards enabling the storage of dangerous chemicals.

How did the chemical end up in the port?

The chemicals originally arrived at Beirut's port on board a Russian-owned cargo vessel flying a Moldovan flag in September 2013.

The shipping monitoring organisation ShipArrested.com at the time reported that "upon inspection of the vessel by Port State Control, the vessel was forbidden from sailing. Most crew except the master and four crew members were repatriated and shortly afterwards the vessel was abandoned by her owners after charterers and cargo concern lost interest in the cargo".

According to documents posted online and seen by Al Jazeera, the ship's dangerous cargo was then offloaded and placed in hangar 12.

Numerous letters were reportedly sent by customs officials, including former director of Lebanese customs Shafik Merhi, to judges between 2014 and 2017 asking for guidance on what to do with the chemicals.

One letter sent in 2016 - which noted there had been "no reply" to previous requests - said the ammonium nitrate was being kept in "unsuitable" conditions.

"In view of the serious danger of keeping these goods in the hangar in unsuitable climatic conditions, we reaffirm our request to please request the marine agency to re-export these goods immediately to preserve the safety of the port and those working in it, or to look into agreeing to sell this amount," said the letter.

Another letter was sent by Lebanese customs administration director general Badri Daher on 27 October 2017 urging a resolution to the situation, in light of "the danger ... of leaving these goods in the place they are, and to those working there".

On Wednesday, British Junior Education Minister Nick Gibb told BBC radio that Britain was working urgently to decide what technical and financial help it could provide to Lebanon.

"There will be further announcements this morning and later today about what support we will be providing to Lebanon," he added.

When asked about speculation about the causes of the blast, Gibb told Sky News: "The Lebanese authorities are of course investigating the cause of that tragedy and before we have the results of that inquiry it is premature to speculate."

Iran

President Hassan Rouhani said Iran was ready to send medical aid to Lebanon, help treat the injured and provide other necessary medical assistance.

"We hope that the circumstances of this incident will be determined as soon as possible and that peace will return to Beirut," state television quoted him as saying.

Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeted on Tuesday: "Our thoughts and prayers are with the great and resilient people of Lebanon. As always, Iran is fully prepared to render assistance in any way necessary. Stay strong, Lebanon."

Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia's foreign ministry said on Tuesday that it was following with great concern the consequences of Beirut's port explosion, according to the state news agency.

The statement also affirmed the kingdom's full support and solidarity with the Lebanese people.

Turkey

Turkey's Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH) is helping in the search for survivors, digging through debris to look for people and recover bodies. The group has also mobilised a kitchen at a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon to deliver food to those in need, said Mustafa Ozbek, an Istanbul-based IHH official.

"We are providing assistance with one ambulance to transfer patients. We may provide help according to the needs of the hospital," he said.

Earlier, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan spoke with Lebanese counterpart Michel Aoun about the massive explosion and said Turkey was ready to provide humanitarian aid as needed, the presidency said.

Palestine

Palestinian leaders have expressed their condolences to the Lebanese people after the explosion. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has expressed his solidarity and said Palestine was ready to offer help to Lebanon. 

Meanwhile, Hamas leader in Gaza Ismail Haniyeh called the Lebanese president, prime minister and the parliament speaker and offered condolences. 

Israel

Israel offered humanitarian assistance to Lebanon on Tuesday, Israeli Defence Minister Benny Gantz said.

"Israel has approached Lebanon through international security and diplomatic channels and has offered the Lebanese government medical and humanitarian assistance," a written statement from Gantz and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi said.

Meanwhile, an Israeli official said that Israel has nothing to do with the explosion.

"Israel has nothing to do with the incident," the official said on condition of anonymity as cited by Reuters.

Lebanon does not recognise the state of Israel. Israel occupied southern Lebanon for more than 15 years until 2000, and continues to occupy the Lebanese Shebaa Farms. Israel also waged a devastating war with Lebanon's Hezbollah movement in 2006, during which its army destroyed much of Beirut's southern suburbs.

Egypt

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi expressed his condolences to the Lebanese people in a phone call with Lebanese President Aoun on Wednesday morning, and said his country was ready to provide all possible aid to Lebanon. 

“My sincere condolences and sympathy to our brothers in Lebanon, the government and the people, over the painful explosion that took place today in the Lebanese capital Beirut," Sisi tweeted on Tuesday. "Praying to God for a speedy recovery for the injured, and may He grant the victims patience and solace.”

Sisi also ordered for two planes filled with medical aid to be sent to Lebanon, Egyptian media reported.

Qatar

Qatar state news agency QNA said the country had dispatched a first military plane carrying medical aid on Wednesday. 

Three more planes were to follow later in the day, containing two field hospitals of 500 beds each equipped with respirators and other necessary medical supplies.

Kuwait 

Kuwait has delivered medical aid and other essentials. 

The Ministry of Health said Kuwaiti aid arrived in Lebanon by military plane on Wednesday morning and the Kuwaiti Red Crescent said it would offer whatever help Lebanon needed, Kuwait television reported.

Tunisia

Tunisia’s president, Kais Saied, and political parties have expressed solidarity with Lebanon following the attack.

Tunisian media reported that Saied had ordered for two military aircraft carrying medical supplies, equipment and food to be sent to Lebanon immediately.

Russia

Russia's emergencies ministries said it was sending five planes carrying medical equipment, a field hospital and medical personnel. It said all medical staff travelling to Beirut would be equipped with personal protective gear in light of the coronavirus pandemic.

Netherlands

The Netherlands is sending a specialised search and rescue team to Lebanon consisting of 67 doctors, nurses, firemen and police officers to assist in the search for survivors trapped under rubble.

Cyprus

Cyprus said it stood ready to offer medical aid to neighbouring Lebanon after the massive explosion.

"Cyprus is ready to accept injured persons for treatment and send medical teams if required," Cypriot Foreign Minister Nikos Christodoulides told state broadcaster CyBC on Wednesday.

Tuesday's explosion was heard throughout Cyprus, which lies about 160km away.

Christodoulides said the Cypriot embassy in Beirut, which was closed at the time of the blast, was extensively damaged.

Beirut explosion: Lebanese people scramble to find missing people online

Wed, 08/05/2020 - 08:41
Beirut explosion: Lebanese people scramble to find missing people online
The explosion has killed at least 100 people and injured at least 4,000, with many more still unaccounted for
Nadda Osman Wed, 08/05/2020 - 09:41
People are using social media to try and locate loved ones who went missing during the blast (AFP/Instagram screengrab)

Tuesday's devastating explosion at Beirut’s port ravaged homes across the capital of Lebanon and destroyed much of the surrounding area. At least 100 people have been killed and 4,000 injured, with many more still unaccounted for.

The blast has been blamed on explosive materials being stored at the port. Rescue teams have been searching through the rubble of ruined neighbourhoods for the missing.

Online groups have been set up to find those who have gone missing in the aftermath of the blast.

Ammonium nitrate: What is it and how did it get to Beirut's port?

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There are still many details surrounding the cause of the explosion that devastated much of Beirut on Tuesday that remain murky and unexplained.

However, the Lebanese government has so far indicated that they believe the enormous blast to have been the result of 2,700 tonnes of the chemical compound ammonium nitrate left lying in a warehouse in Beirut port since 2013.

Middle East Eye has compiled a quick guide to the destructive compound and the circumstances surrounding its fateful detonation on Tuesday.

What is ammonium nitrate?

Ammonium nitrate is an industrial chemical commonly used for fertilisers, but also as an explosive, often used in mining.

The chemical, known by the formula NH4NO3, is a naturally white crystalline solid and is often known as saltpetre.

Under most conditions ammonium nitrate is not necessarily dangerous and is relatively stable - it can even be used to smother a fire.

However, if contaminated it can become highly volatile.

What previous incidents have there been?

The most notorious confirmed ammonium nitrate explosion prior to Tuesday was the 1947 Texas City Disaster.

On 16 April 1947, at the Port of Texas City, 2,300 tonnes of ammonium nitrate exploded, killing almost 500 people.

More than 5,000 people were injured and at least 1,000 buildings levelled in the surrounding area.

It was the deadliest industrial accident in US history and resulted in the first-class action lawsuit against the US government on behalf of 8,485 victims.

A more recent incident involving ammonium nitrate took place in 2015 when a series of explosions at a chemical plant in the Chinese port city of Tianjin killed 173 people and injured 798.

Among the blasts at the port was the detonation of 800 tonnes of ammonium nitrate.

Eventually Chinese courts handed jail sentences to 49 government officials and warehouse executives and staff over their involvement in circumventing and loosening safety standards enabling the storage of dangerous chemicals.

How did the chemical end up in the port?

The chemicals originally arrived at Beirut's port on board a Russian-owned cargo vessel flying a Moldovan flag in September 2013.

The shipping monitoring organisation ShipArrested.com at the time reported that "upon inspection of the vessel by Port State Control, the vessel was forbidden from sailing. Most crew except the master and four crew members were repatriated and shortly afterwards the vessel was abandoned by her owners after charterers and cargo concern lost interest in the cargo".

According to documents posted online and seen by Al Jazeera, the ship's dangerous cargo was then offloaded and placed in hangar 12.

Numerous letters were reportedly sent by customs officials, including former director of Lebanese customs Shafik Merhi, to judges between 2014 and 2017 asking for guidance on what to do with the chemicals.

One letter sent in 2016 - which noted there had been "no reply" to previous requests - said the ammonium nitrate was being kept in "unsuitable" conditions.

"In view of the serious danger of keeping these goods in the hangar in unsuitable climatic conditions, we reaffirm our request to please request the marine agency to re-export these goods immediately to preserve the safety of the port and those working in it, or to look into agreeing to sell this amount," said the letter.

Another letter was sent by Lebanese customs administration director general Badri Daher on 27 October 2017 urging a resolution to the situation, in light of "the danger ... of leaving these goods in the place they are, and to those working there".

Hours after the explosion took place, an Instagram page called "Locate victims Beirut" was set up to share photos of missing people.

The page quickly garnered over 70,000 followers, many frantically providing information that could help or sending in images of loved ones who had not yet been found. 

The page was able to locate around 40 people, who were found undergoing surgery at the American University of Beirut Medical Center (AUMBC). 

The head of the Lebanese Red Cross told local broadcasters on Wednesday that more than 100 people had died following the blast at a warehouse in the city's port.

In a show of solidarity, many people also took to social media to offer rides to hospitals outside of Beirut, as hospitals became inundated with patients injured by glass and materials from buildings. 

if anyone needs a ride to a hospital outside beirut please please contact me i’d be happy to drive them there https://t.co/r7MKV927K7

— m (@chxoticnevil) August 4, 2020

Careem, a service App offering car and taxi rides operating in Lebanon, offered free rides to hospitals for those donating blood as the number of injuries spiked. 

URGENT
All blood types needed in all hospitals and blood donation centers in Beirut. Use promocode DONATEBLOOD for a free ride to and from the hospital or the blood donations center. pic.twitter.com/eDsWg8m0hs

— Careem Lebanon (@CareemLEB) August 4, 2020

People have also taken to social media to share locations where people can give blood.

With so many injured, hospitals - which have also reported damage from the blast - have been inundated with patients. Locals on social media have said that some of the wounded were being turned away from facilities unable to cope with the strain on a healthcare system already struggling under the coronavirus pandemic

The Lebanese Red Cross urged people to go to hospitals only if they are critically ill and called on people to donate blood if they are able to. 

Blood banks in Lebanon need blood urgently.

The Lebanese Red Cross needs blood donations at transfusion centers in: Tripoli, Jounieh, Antelias, Spears, Zahle, Saida, and Nabatieh.

If you are able to Please Donate.
Share this around.
#beirut_بيروت #beirutexplosion pic.twitter.com/OiYFUYDDrr

— Anonymous (@YourAnonCentral) August 4, 2020

The blast comes as Lebanon deals with a devastating economic crisis, with the Lebanese pound losing 80 percent of its value in less than a year, in addition to a surge of coronavirus cases that have overwhelmed hospitals. 

The aftermath is unbelievable. Every building within a 20 mile radius seems completely destroyed or heavily damaged. 100s of people must be under rubble down in the port. Hell, even people in Cyprus felt its vibrations. You can't convince me it was fireworks.

— ج (@impeachjad) August 4, 2020

The blast has caused devastation across the city, with many homes, hospitals and buildings left with shattered glass and damaged structures. 

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

Egypt and Sudan suspend Nile dam talks in protest at Ethiopian proposal

Wed, 08/05/2020 - 08:28
Egypt and Sudan suspend Nile dam talks in protest at Ethiopian proposal
Cairo and Khartoum say Addis Ababa has repeatedly presented proposals whose provisions would not be binding
MEE and agencies Wed, 08/05/2020 - 09:28
An aerial view of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile River in Guba, northwest Ethiopia (AFP)

Egypt and Sudan on Tuesday suspended their participation in talks with Ethiopia over its Renaissance Dam project after Addis Ababa presented a proposal that did not meet the demands of the two downstream countries. 

The decision follows a tripartite meeting between technical and legal committees representing the three countries earlier on Tuesday, attended by observers from the United States, the European Union and the African Union. 

The three Nile Basin countries have been negotiating for nearly a decade to reach an agreement on outstanding issues related to the impact of the $4.6bn Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) on their water security. 

How Ethiopia's Renaissance Dam became Egypt's Nakba
David Hearst
Read More »

Egypt and Sudan insist that binding agreements are needed to secure their future interests and water security, and must be agreed prior to the filling process. 

Egypt’s Ministry of Water Resources said that Ethiopia presented a proposal that did not include provisions about the binding nature of a future agreement and an international conflict resolution mechanism, two of the most concerning issues for Egypt in the talks. 

“Just before the meeting was held, the Ethiopian minister of water addressed a letter to his counterparts in both Egypt and Sudan, accompanied by draft guidelines and rules for filling the Renaissance Dam that do not include any operating rules or any elements that reflect the mandatory nature of the agreement, in addition to the absence of a legal mechanism to settle disputes,” the ministry said in a statement. 

Sudan fears

Meanwhile, the Sudanese irrigation ministry said the latest Ethiopian position raises new fears regarding the talks. It reiterated that the dam remains a safety hazard for the African country.

"[We] stress the seriousness of the risks that the dam represents for Sudan and its people, including environmental and social risks, and for the safety of millions of residents along the banks of the Blue Nile... which reinforces the need to reach a comprehensive agreement covering both filling and operation," the Sudanese irrigation ministry said.

Ethiopia said that Egypt and Sudan have requested the deferral of talks until they review its new proposal. 

GERD

On Monday, Egypt and Sudan had warned of the consequences of the unilateral filling of the dam, and called for a swift and binding agreement regarding the filling and operation of the project. 

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed had said earlier in July that his country had already achieved its first-year target for filling the reservoir, thanks to a heavy rainy season.

A lifeline for millions

Egypt relies on the Nile water for the vast majority of its water consumption and is concerned that the filling of the dam will exacerbate a water shortage crisis in the event of a prolonged drought. 

Explained: The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam
Read More »

Ethiopia, the source of 85 percent of the Nile's water and the manager of the GERD, is primarily concerned about its own pressing energy needs and the potential of the dam to lift millions of its people out of poverty. 

Once operational it will provide much-needed electricity for the country's nearly 115 million population, the majority of whom are not currently connected to the grid.

Sudan, Ethiopia's northern neighbour, has concerns regarding the potential impact of the construction of the dam on its own dams, and for the safety of its population and farmland from flooding that could result from faults in the construction or operation of the GERD. 

The speed of the filling of the dam will potentially have an immediate effect on Egypt.

If it takes five years to fill the dam, it will reduce Egypt's water supply by 36 percent and destroy half of Egypt’s farmland, according to the Egyptian government.

Rashida Tlaib wins re-election race with ease

Wed, 08/05/2020 - 06:19
Rashida Tlaib wins re-election race with ease
Tlaib declares victory in primary against Detroit City Council President Brenda Jones, all but securing second term in Congress
Ali Harb Wed, 08/05/2020 - 07:19
Tlaib has been outspoken advocate in Congress for Palestinian human rights (AFP/File photo)

Palestinian-American Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib comfortably fended off a serious primary challenger, all but securing re-election for a second term in her heavily Democratic district in Michigan.

Tlaib quickly rose to national prominence after being elected to the House of Representatives in 2018, becoming one of the first two Muslim women in Congress.

An outspoken critic of President Donald Trump, she became the target of frequent right-wing attacks, including by the president himself.

On Tuesday, she defeated Detroit City Council President Brenda Jones. Preliminary results showed Tlaib with a substantial lead of almost double of Jones's vote tally (61,090 to 31,487).  The congresswoman declared victory early on Wednesday. 

Tlaib thanked her friends and supporters, stressing that "the work continues".

"Headlines said I was the most vulnerable member of the Squad," she wrote on Twitter on Wednesday, referring to the notable group of progressive congresswomen of colour in the House of Representatives.

"My community responded last night and said our Squad is big. It includes all who believe we must show up for each other and prioritize people over profits. It’s here to stay, and it’s only getting bigger."

The race against Brenda Jones

The election was a rematch of the 2018 race, when Tlaib narrowly edged Jones in a crowded field of candidates to fill the seat of John Conyers, a civil-rights icon who retired after 52 years in Congress. 

Jones, who is African American, had received the endorsements of all the candidates who went up against her and Tlaib two years ago. 

She was also backed by prominent Black activists in Detroit, who argued that the city council president was better-equipped to represent Conyers' district, which is 54 percent African American.

Democratic congressman faces accusations of Islamophobia over anti-BDS flyer
Read More »

Jones accused Tlaib of not focusing enough on her district because of what she called the congresswoman's "celebrity" status.

Still, Tlaib ran a campaign promoting her local achievements, including securing federal funding to change lead pipes and efforts to avert water shutoffs, as well as to lower car insurance prices.

During her first term, Tlaib has been an outspoken supporter of Palestinian human rights. 

She took the oath of office wearing a traditional Palestinian dress known as a thobe, and since then has backed numerous initiatives to hold Israel accountable for its policies against Palestinians.

Last year, the Israeli government banned Tlaib and fellow Muslim-American Congresswoman Ilhan Omar from visiting the country because of their support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. 

Despite the attacks that Tlaib has faced over her stance on the conflict, foreign policy was not a major theme in the contest between her and Jones.

Pro-Israel groups, which are heavily backing Omar's opponent, were not prominently involved in Tlaib's race. 

Jones had been criticised by Jewish-American activists over her ties to Louis Farrakhan, leader of the Nation of Islam, who has a history of making antisemitic remarks. 

Tlaib had the strength of incumbency going into the race, with Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and several influential labour unions endorsing her.

She also had the support of progressive groups of politicians that backed her two years ago.

'Urgently needed'

Arab, Muslim and Palestinian solidarity activists celebrated Tlaib's win on Wednesday.

"We are overjoyed that we get to continue working with Congresswoman Tlaib to pass the progressive agenda that is urgently needed at the moment," IfNotNow, a youth-led Jewish-American left-wing organisation, said in a statement.

The group added that the congresswoman "will continue to courageously use her platform to speak out against the immoral and illegal Israeli occupation and for Palestinian freedom".

Emgage PAC, a Muslim-American political advocacy organsiation, also welcomed Tlaib's win.

Palestinian Democrats decry 'bias and censorship' in party platform
Read More »

"Rashida Tlaib has consistently worked for the attainment of justice and equality for all peoples, and we are confident that she will continue to do so after her victory today," Emgage's Michigan executive director Nada Al-Hanooti said in a statement.

"Emgage PAC is incredibly proud to have endorsed and supported such a trailblazer, who has served as one of the first Muslim women in Congress with resilience and grace."

Sally Howell, a professor of Arab-American studies at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, said Tlaib's national prominence, which drew Trump's ire, was due to her identity as a Palestinian Muslim woman, but on Tuesday she reaffirmed her credentials as an advocate for her local constituents.

"What this proves is a point that we've known all along - that when Arab Americans run for office, when Muslim Americans run for office, they're running because they have this goal of serving their community... They're not running only as ethnic candidates; the constituencies they represent are not only their ethnic or religious constituencies," Howell told MEE. 

"They're American political actors just like other American political actors."

Washington

Trump says Beirut explosion was an 'attack' despite no evidence it was deliberate

Tue, 08/04/2020 - 23:36
Trump says Beirut explosion was an 'attack' despite no evidence it was deliberate
US president says generals told him that the explosion, which has devastated the Lebanese capital, was caused by a 'bomb of some kind'
MEE staff Wed, 08/05/2020 - 00:36
In Lebanon, there appeared to be a consensus that the blast was caused by an accident (AFP)

US President Donald Trump has described the explosion that rocked Beirut on Tuesday as an "attack," despite no immediate evidence suggesting it was intentional.

In an opening statement at a news conference, Trump expressed solidarity with the people of Lebanon, offering Washington's assistance to deal with the aftermath of the blast that killed dozens and injured thousands across Beirut.

"We will be there to help. It looks like a terrible attack," he said.

In pictures: Explosion sends shockwaves across Beirut
Read More »

The Lebanese government has suggested that the enormous blast in Beirut was caused by a fire that led to the detonation of highly explosive chemicals stored at a warehouse in the capital's commercial port.

When pressed about characterising the incident as an "attack", Trump stood by his statement.

"Are you confident that this was an attack and not an accident?" a reporter asked the president.

Trump said US generals believe the explosion was caused by a "bomb of some kind".

"It seems like it, based on the explosion," he said. "I met with some of our great generals, and they just seem to feel that it was; this was not some kind of a manufacturing explosion type of event. This seems to be - according to them; they would know better than I would - but they seem to think it was [an] attack." 

Huge explosion rocks Beirut

A massive unexplained explosion has torn through Beirut’s port and caused damage across the city. Lebanon’s health minister fears that the number of wounded is high and videos circulating online appear to show several dead

Posted by Middle East Eye on Tuesday, August 4, 2020

Earlier in the day Secretary of State Mike Pompeo expressed sympathy for Lebanon without mentioning anything about an attack.

"I'd like to extend my deepest condolences to all those affected by the massive explosion at the port of Beirut on August 4," Pompeo wrote on Twitter.

"We are monitoring and stand ready to assist the people of Lebanon as they recover from this horrible tragedy."

Later on Tuesday, Pompeo said in an official statement: "We understand that the Government of Lebanon continues to investigate its cause and look forward to the outcome of those efforts."

The White House did not respond to MEE's request for comment by time of publication.

In Lebanon, there appeared to be a consensus - even amongst bitter political rivals - that the blast was caused by accident. 

The explosion, which was felt across the country, devastated Beirut, killing at least 73 people and wounding more than 3,700.

Washington

Lebanon PM says those responsible for Beirut blast will 'pay the price'

Tue, 08/04/2020 - 22:34
Lebanon PM says those responsible for Beirut blast will 'pay the price'
'What happened today will not pass without accountability,' Prime Minister Hassan Diab said in an address to the nation
MEE staff Tue, 08/04/2020 - 23:34
Dozens have been killed in the blast caused by chemicals stored at Beirut port (AFP)

Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab has vowed that those responsible for a massive explosion at Beirut's port, which killed scores of people and wounded thousands, would be held to account.

According to Lebanon's Health Ministry, at least 73 people have been killed and more than 3,700 wounded following a blast at a warehouse in Beirut's port - a tally that is expected to rise as many people remain missing.

The explosion left the port a wasteland and caused damage to buildings across the capital, with tremors felt as far away as Cyprus.

In pictures: Explosion sends shockwaves across Beirut
Read More »

"What happened today will not pass without accountability," Diab said in an address to the nation late on Tuesday. "Those responsible for this catastrophe will pay the price."

According to the National Council for Scientific Research, a warehouse containing ammonium nitrate, a highly explosive material used for fertilisers, was the source of the incident.

President Michel Aoun said it was "unacceptable" that 2,750 tonnes of the material were stored at the warehouse for six years without adequate safety measures, and said those responsible would face the "harshest punishments."

Aoun had presided over a meeting for the Supreme Defence Council, the highest security authority in the country, late on Tuesday. 

The council declared a state of emergency for two weeks and three days of national mourning, vowing to investigate the incident and compensate the victims. It also ordered increasing the capacity of the port in the northern city of Tripoli to handle imports and prevent shortages.

Huge explosion rocks Beirut

A massive unexplained explosion has torn through Beirut’s port and caused damage across the city. Lebanon’s health minister fears that the number of wounded is high and videos circulating online appear to show several dead

Posted by Middle East Eye on Tuesday, August 4, 2020

In his address to the nation, Diab, who has been in office since February, also appealed to the international community for assistance.

"I am sending an urgent appeal to all countries that are friends and brothers and love Lebanon, to stand by its side and help us treat these deep wounds," said Diab.

Turkey, Qatar, Kuwait and France all offered to either send aid or help the country, while the powerful Hezbollah movement urged rival political factions to unite and overcome the "painful catastrophe."

'We will be there to help. It looks like a terrible attack'

- Donald Trump

US President Donald Trump expressed his "deepest sympathies" for Lebanon, saying that Washington "stands ready" to assist the country.

"We will be there to help. It looks like a terrible attack," Trump said at a news conference.

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden also voiced support for Lebanon, urging the White House and international community to "immediately mobilise assistance to the thousands injured."

"Our hearts and prayers are with the people of Lebanon, and the victims of the horrific explosion in Beirut," Biden wrote on Twitter. "I urge both the Trump Administration and international community to immediately mobilise assistance to the thousands injured in the blast."

Lebanon is struggling with its worst economic crisis in years with severe power outages and shortages of basic goods.

In recent months the Lebanese pound has lost 80 percent of its value and food prices have doubled. The government has warned that 60 percent of the population could be living below the poverty line before the end of the year.

Saudi Arabia constructs facility for extracting uranium yellowcake: Report

Tue, 08/04/2020 - 22:10
Saudi Arabia constructs facility for extracting uranium yellowcake: Report
Kingdom built the facility in its northwest region with Chinese assistance, according to Wall Street Journal
MEE staff Tue, 08/04/2020 - 23:10
One official said that the facility is located in the vicinity of al-Ula, a small city in the northwest of Saudi Arabia.
One official said that the facility is located in the vicinity of al-Ula, a small city in the northwest of Saudi Arabia (AFP)

Saudi Arabia has constructed a facility - with assistance from China - to extract uranium yellowcake from uranium ore, the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) has reported, citing western officials with knowledge of the matter.

The US newspaper reported on Tuesday that the facility, which has not been publicly disclosed, is located in Saudi Arabia's northwest region and is raising concerns from US officials.

The main concern is that as the kingdom moves ahead with developing its nuclear programme, it is keeping the door open for the creation of nuclear weapons.

'The Saudis are trying to have it both ways, and we can't allow them to get away with that'

- US Senator Chris Murphy

One official told the WSJ that the facility is located in the vicinity of al-Ula, a small city in the northwest, and two other officials said it was constructed with the help of two Chinese entities.

Riyadh "categorically denies" that it has built a uranium ore facility in the area described by the officials, but added that the extraction of uranium is a key component of the kingdom's economic diversification strategy, which looks to move away from its dependence on oil exports.

Saudi Arabia's energy ministry confirmed the country has a contract with China on uranium exploration in certain areas.

“Yellowcake” is a milled form of uranium ore that occurs naturally in Saudi Arabia and is produced by chemically processing uranium ore into a fine powder. The name comes from the bright yellow colour it has once the powder is dried.

With additional processing, it can power a civil nuclear energy plant. At very high enrichment levels, it can even fuel a nuclear weapon.

Riyadh bypassing nuclear oversight

While Washington had been discussing selling nuclear technology, including reactors, to Saudi Arabia, the Trump administration said that the kingdom must adhere to a "gold standard" of requirements of nuclear oversight, including renouncing the enrichment of uranium.

Riyadh has refused to agree to standards on reprocessing spent fuel and enriching uranium, two potential paths to making nuclear weapons.

US Congress should be kept informed of nuclear talks with Saudi Arabia, watchdog says
Read More »

Ollie Heinonen, a senior adviser on science and nonproliferation at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told the WSJ that "the facility's construction suggested the Saudis were trying to keep their options open".

Saudi Arabia signed a memorandum of understanding with China National Nuclear in 2017 to help explore its uranium deposits, and another was signed with China Nuclear Engineering Group.

The two accords followed a 2012 pact announced between Riyadh and Beijing to co-operate on peaceful uses of nuclear energy, according to the WSJ.

"The reason we do nuclear technology development deals with countries is so that they will commit to the gold standard and commit to a working relationship with the United States," US Senator Chris Murphy told the newspaper.

"The Saudis are trying to have it both ways, and we can't allow them to get away with that."

In addition to agreements with China, Saudi Arabia also has an understanding with an Argentinian nuclear technology company, is collaborating with South Korea on a commercial reactor design, and has public co-operation agreements with Jordan on uranium mining and production.

IAEA protocols

Riyadh currently has a limited safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and is not obliged to disclose its yellowcake site to the nuclear watchdog.

As of early this year, more than 150 countries, including Iran and the US, had signed onto the IAEA's additional protocols - the agency's most advanced type of oversight - which safeguards against the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

Neither Saudi Arabia nor Israel have signed onto this latest oversight agreement.

The Saudi energy ministry has said in a statement that the kingdom's "nuclear programme fully complies with all relevant international legal frameworks and instruments governing nuclear energy and its peaceful use".

Coronavirus: Iran sees highest daily rise in Covid-19 cases in weeks

Tue, 08/04/2020 - 19:55
Coronavirus: Iran sees highest daily rise in Covid-19 cases in weeks
Health ministry reports 212 deaths in the past 24 hours and 2,751 confirmed Covid-19 cases
MEE and agencies Tue, 08/04/2020 - 20:55
Iran's total number of total Covid-19 cases since the outbreak began in late February has now risen to 314,786.
Iran's total number of Covid-19 cases since the outbreak began in late February has risen to 314,786 (Reuters)

Iran reported its highest daily number of coronavirus infections in nearly two months, with cases on Tuesday exceeding 2,700, according to the country's health ministry. 

Sima Sadat Lari, the Iranian health ministry's spokesperson, told state TV that the Islamic Republic had documented 212 deaths in the last 24 hours and 2,751 new cases.

Tuesday's figure is the highest the country has seen since 5 June, when the ministry reported 2,886 infections in the space of 24 hours.

The number of total cases since the outbreak began in late February had risen to 314,786, including 17,617 deaths, Lari added.

Iran has been the hardest hit country in the Middle East from the pandemic, with the country recording a spike in infections after easing lockdown restrictions in April. 

Coronavirus: Iran accused of cover up as documents claim death toll three times higher
Read More »

The government has made wearing masks mandatory in enclosed spaces and reimposed restrictions that had been gradually lifted in April to reopen the flagging economy.

Iran has suffered a sharp economic downturn since US President Donald Trump withdrew from a landmark nuclear agreement in 2018 and reimposed crippling sanctions.

Despite the rule on face masks, AFP reported that people could still be seen without masks inside the capital Tehran's shops and banks.

Iran's deputy health minister, Iraj Harirchi, called for fines against those who failed to obey the mask rules, as the only penalty currently in place was the refusal of service in public places.

"Deterrent methods must naturally be used, one of which is fining those not wearing masks," ISNA news agency quoted Harirchi as saying.

But those "financially unable to buy masks must be exempted", he added, without elaborating how that could be determined.

Masks in Iran range in cost from roughly 15 US cents for simple surgical ones to 68 cents for multilayered ones with respirators. The country's minimum wage is $2.60 per day.

Iran sees highest daily rise in coronavirus cases in weeks

Massive unexplained explosion rocks Beirut

Tue, 08/04/2020 - 15:19
Massive unexplained explosion rocks Beirut
Lebanon's health minister says very high number of wounded and widespread damage across the capital
MEE staff Tue, 08/04/2020 - 16:19
A picture shows the scene of an explosion in Beirut (AFP)

A massive explosion has torn through Beirut’s port and caused damage across the city, with the cause yet unknown.

Lebanon's health minister said there is a very high number of wounded and widespread damage, local channel LBC reported.

A security source told LBC that the source of the explosion was a fire in a warehouse that contained fireworks. Middle East Eye could not independently verify the report.

Videos have circulated online showing a huge fire and smoke cloud in the port in the city’s east.

Terrible. The most clear footage from Beirut port explosion(s) so far pic.twitter.com/4WqOHtUPZd

— Ragıp Soylu (@ragipsoylu) August 4, 2020

Residents have reported more than one explosion. It is not clear if they were from the same location.

Windows were smashed across the city by the blast, the tremors of which were felt even beyond Beirut.

A journalist at local newspaper The Daily Star uploaded a video of its newsroom approximately 1.5km from the explosion, showing massive destruction inside.

BREAKING: Massive explosion in Beirut. Footage from the daily star office now in Lebanon pic.twitter.com/2uBsKP5wCH

— Ghada Alsharif (@GhadaaSharif) August 4, 2020

More to come…

Lebanon: Protesters attempt to storm Energy Ministry amid crippling power cuts

Tue, 08/04/2020 - 13:39
Lebanon: Protesters attempt to storm Energy Ministry amid crippling power cuts
Since the start of summer, electricity outages up to 20 hours a day have plunged the country into darkness amid a spiralling economic crisis
MEE and agencies Tue, 08/04/2020 - 14:39
Lebanese security forces hold back protesters outside the Energy Ministry in Beirut on 4 August 2020 (AFP)

Lebanese security forces repressed demonstrators on Tuesday as the latter tried to storm the building of the Energy Ministry to denounce the mass power cuts that have plunged entire areas of the country into darkness.

Protesters pushed past a barbed-wire fence near the ministry's Beirut headquarters, but were dispersed by baton-wielding security forces.

One protester, speaking on the behalf of the group, said they would block the entrance to the ministry for 24 hours.

"Your continued presence will plunge Lebanon into total darkness," he said, urging Energy Minister Raymond Ghajar to step down.

The protest comes one day after Foreign Minister Nassif Hitti resigned over the government’s performance. 

A self-proclaimed technocratic cabinet had been assembled in January to tackle the country’s myriad economic and political issues, but has so far struggled to make an impact. 

The country is in the midst of an economic crisis, with its currency losing 80 percent of its value since late 2019 and food prices doubling.

Two power bills

The crisis-hit country's ailing power sector receives one of the largest slices of the government's budget, after debt-servicing and public-sector salaries.

But hours-long power cuts have persisted over the past three decades, despite repeated promises of uninterrupted supply from consecutive governments.

Lebanon economic crisis: Food prices are so high not even shops can afford them
Read More »

As a result, the vast majority of Lebanese pay two power bills: one to a ravaged state electricity company; another to expensive private generator companies for three to 12 hours' power a day when the mains are cut.

Since the start of summer, outages have lasted up to 20 hours a day in some areas, due to a spiralling economic crisis that has hampered fuel imports.

This has fuelled the grievances of a protest movement, mobilised since October to demand the removal of a political class deemed incompetent and corrupt.

According to consultancy firm McKinsey, Lebanon has the world's fourth-worst electrical supply, ranked only above Haiti, Nigeria and Yemen.

The state-run electricity firm has cost the government more than $40bn since the 1975-1990 civil war, despite providing only a fraction of the country's power needs, draining a country now grappling with its worst economic crisis in decades.

International donors have pointed to electricity reform as a key condition to unlock assistance, including an $11bn aid package for Lebanon pledged at a Paris conference in 2018.

The government approved a new electricity plan promising uninterrupted supply in April, but it has yet to be implemented.

Children among several Yemenis killed by floods and lightning

Tue, 08/04/2020 - 12:37
Children among several Yemenis killed by floods and lightning
Seventeen people, including eight children, reported dead in northern Marib region
MEE and agencies Tue, 08/04/2020 - 13:37
Yemen, where five years of conflict have left swathes of the country in ruins, was hit by deadly floods in April (AFP)

Seventeen people, including eight children, have been killed in flash floods and by lightning in Yemen's northern Marib region, health authorities said on Tuesday.

"Sixteen people drowned and another person was killed after being struck by lightning," local health authorities said in a statement. 

Recent storms have hit other provinces, including the capital Sanaa, Amran, Hodeidah, Taez, Saada and Hadramaut, AFP reported.

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Dozens of homes and hundreds of tents for the displaced have been destroyed, according to authorities.

Meanwhile, the official Saba news agency reported that floodwaters swelling the reservoir of the Marib dam, built in 1986, raised concerns it might collapse.

It said the government had called for "quick solutions to face potential dangers over the continuous flooding of the Marib dam".

The fierce storms have added to the woes of the war-torn country, which the UN has described as the world's worst humanitarian crisis.

Five years of conflict have left swathes of the country in ruins. 

Coronavirus death toll

The Arab world's poorest country also faces the coronavirus pandemic, which its decrepit health system is ill-equipped to handle.

Yemen has officially recorded more than 1,700 cases of the virus, including 499 deaths, although aid organisations say the death toll is probably much higher.

A government health ministry spokesman told Reuters it reports figures daily and that "nothing was hidden".

The country is divided between the Saudi-backed government based in Aden in the south and the Houthi movement based in the capital Sanaa in the north.

The Houthis, who control most big urban centres, have not provided figures since 16 May when authorities said there were four cases, and one death. 

An estimated 24 million Yemenis, more than 80 percent of the population, are dependent on aid for survival, according to the UN.

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