Lebanon: Three years after Beirut mega-blast, no answers

The largest non-nuclear explosions rocked Beirut on August 4, 2020, destroying a large part of the Lebanese capital, killing more than 220 people and injuring at least 6,500. Three years later, the investigation into the painful disaster caused by a huge pile of poorly stored fertilizer remains mired in a legal and political quagmire, leaving the victims’ families disheartened. The massive explosion, which was heard as far away as Cyprus, destroys Beirut port, and entire districts of the city scenes that shocked the country and the world.

The explosion left a crater 43 meters (141 ft) deep and was recorded as equivalent to a magnitude 3.3 earthquake. The disaster spreads fear and chaos, with mountains of broken glass in the streets and hospitals inundated with bloodied survivors. The explosion was caused by a fire in a warehouse where a vast stock of the industrial chemical ammonium nitrate had been stored haphazardly for years. The tragedy occurred during a deep economic crisis, followed nearly a year by mass demonstrations against a ruling class deemed inept and corrupt, as living conditions worsened.

On 10 August, Prime Minister Hassan Diab resigned due to pressure over the eruption. In December 2020, Fadi Sawan, the lead investigator probing the explosion, accused Diab and three former ministers of negligence. Two of them filed a complaint, the investigation was suspended and Sawan was removed from his post by court order. In July 2021, the new investigating magistrate, Tarek Bitter, proceeded to interrogate the four former ministers, but Parliament blocked the extension of their immunity. He was forced to suspend the investigation after a series of court challenges.

In October 2021, the powerful Shiite movement Hezbollah and its ally Amal called for demonstrations demanding Bitar’s dismissal. Seven people were killed in the firing during the rally. In late 2021, Bitter resumed his investigation but less than two weeks later was forced to suspend work for a fourth time following more legal challenges. On August 4, 2022, several grain silos damaged in the explosion collapsed in a cloud of dust, a painful reminder of the disaster that occurred exactly two years earlier. A few days earlier, other parts of the silo collapsed after a fire broke out and fermented the leftover grain stock in the summer heat.

In January 2023, 13 months after his investigation was suspended, Bitar resumed work and charged Prosecutor General Ghassan Ouidat and seven others with possible intent to murder, arson and other crimes. Ouidat in turn accused Bitter of disobedience and a “power grab” but the investigator refused to step down. Ouidat also ordered the release of “all those detained” in connection with the port explosion, which stalled the investigation and so far no one has been held responsible. Victims’ families and rights groups urge the United Nations to create an independent fact-finding mission.

Beirut mega-blastLebanonLebanon: Three years after Beirut mega-blastno answersnon-nuclear explosions rocked Beirut