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Investigators focus on possible negligence in deadly Lebanon explosion

The Lebanese government says it is putting an unspecified number of Beirut port officials under house arrest pending an investigation into how 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate came to be stored at the port for years.

Canada offers an initial $5 million aid after blast that killed 135 and injured 5,000

Beirut is mourning its dead and beginning a massive cleanup operation following an explosion. 1:24

Investigators probing the deadly blast that ripped across Beirut focused Wednesday on possible negligence in the storage of tons of a highly explosive fertilizer in a waterfront warehouse, while the government ordered the house arrest of several port officials.

International aid flights began to arrive as Lebanon's leaders struggled to deal with the widespread damage and shocking aftermath of Tuesday's blast, which the Health Ministry said killed 135 people and injured about 5,000 others.

Public anger mounted against the ruling elite that is being blamed for the chronic mismanagement and carelessness that led to the disaster.

The Port of Beirut and customs office is notorious for being one of the most corrupt and lucrative institutions in Lebanon where various factions and politicians, including Hezbollah, hold sway.

The investigation is focusing on how 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate, a highly explosive chemical used in fertilizers, came to be stored at the facility for six years and why nothing was done about it.

Volunteers clean the streets on Wednesday following the blast in Beirut's port area a day earlier. (Mohamed Azakir/Reuters)

State prosecutor Ghassan Oueidat ordered security agencies to start an immediate investigation and collect all reports and letters related to the materials stored at the port, as well as lists of people in charge of maintenance, storage and protection of the hangar.

'Massive cleanup operation'

Meanwhile, residents of Beirut are dealing with a scene of utter devastation after the explosion.

In the hard-hit Achrafieh district, civil defence workers and soldiers were working on locating missing people and clearing the rubble. At least one man was still pinned under stones from an old building that had collapsed. Volunteers hooked him up to an oxygen tank to help him breathe while others tried to free his leg.

The blast destroyed numerous apartment buildings, potentially leaving large numbers of people homeless at a time when many Lebanese have lost their jobs and seen their savings evaporate because of a currency crisis. The explosion also raises concerns about how Lebanon will continue to import nearly all of its vital goods with its main port devastated.

Lebanon's health minister said the death toll had risen to at least 135 people while more than 5,000 were wounded. Hamad Hassan also said up to 300,000 people have been left homeless. 

A member of the security forces walks along a smashed-up street on Wednesday near the site of the explosion in Beirut's port area. (Aziz Taher/Reuters)

Beirut's Clemenceau Medical Center was "like a slaughterhouse, blood covering the corridors and the lifts," said Sara, one of its nurses, who didn't provide a surname.

Beirut Gov. Marwan Abboud told Al Hadath TV that collective losses after the blast might reach $10 billion to $15 billion US, saying the estimate included both direct and indirect losses related to business.

"There's glass absolutely everywhere," said CBC News contributor Rebecca Collard. "Basically, what we have this morning in Beirut is a massive cleanup operation."

Rescue workers were attempting to dig through rubble to locate anyone trapped, Collard said, making it likely the current toll of dead and injured will increase.

Scores of people were missing, with relatives pleading on social media for help locating loved ones. An Instagram page called Locating Victims Beirut sprang up with photos of missing people, and radio presenters read the names of missing or wounded people throughout the night. 

Among those confirmed dead was Nazar Najarian, a businessman who moved back to Lebanon from Montreal two years ago. Najarian's wife and two kids are still living in Montreal, according to Aref Salem, a city councillor for the Montreal borough of Saint-Laurent.

WATCH | 'We're trying to collect ourselves,' a Canadian in Beirut says:

Sami Basbous says that hospitals are over capacity, and people 'are trying to help each other.' 3:54

Sami Basbous, also from the Montreal area, was not seriously injured but was shaken by the blast.

"My body was thrown, and I felt breathless," he said. "It really felt like nothing I've ever experienced before."

Letter warned of danger

Fuelling speculation that negligence was to blame for the accident, an official letter circulating online showed that the head of the customs department had warned repeatedly over the years that the huge stockpile of ammonium nitrate stored in the port was a danger and had asked judicial officials for a ruling on a way to remove it.

Ammonium nitrate is a component of fertilizer that is potentially explosive. The 2,750-tonne cargo had been stored at the port since it was confiscated from a ship in 2013, and on Tuesday it is believed to have detonated after a fire broke out nearby.

The 2017 letter from the customs chief to a judge could not be immediately confirmed, but Oueidat, the state prosecutor, ordered security agencies to start an immediate investigation into all letters related to the materials stored at the port, as well as lists of those in charge of maintenance, storage and protection of the hangar.

In the letter, the customs chief warned of the "dangers if the materials remain where they are, affecting the safety of [port] employees" and asked the judge for guidance. He said five similar letters were sent in 2014, 2015 and 2016. The letter proposes the material be exported or sold to a Lebanese explosives company. It is not known if there was a response.

Brink of collapse

Lebanon was already on the brink of collapse amid a severe economic crisis that has ignited mass protests in recent months. Its hospitals are confronting a surge in coronavirus cases, and there were concerns the virus could spread further as people flooded into hospitals.

"There are so many problems," Sami Basbous said. "And to add this on top of that is just so catastrophic. People are really hurting."

Nations chip in with search, aid

Saint George University Hospital, one of the major private hospitals in Beirut that had been receiving COVID-19 patients, was out of commission Wednesday after suffering major damage. A physician who identified himself as Dr. Emile said 16 staff and patients, including four nurses, died in the blast. He declined to give his last name out of privacy concerns.

The UN said it would step up emergency assistance to Lebanon. 

"We expect that the damage at the port will significantly exacerbate the economic and food security situation in Lebanon, which imports about 80 to 85 per cent of its food," UN deputy spokesperson Farhan Haq said.

The blast also wounded a number of UN peacekeepers, staff and their families, stationed in the area. Bangladesh said 21 members of its navy were wounded, one critically. Italy, one of the top contributors to the UNIFIL mission, said one of its soldiers was wounded.

WATCH | Priest's service interrupted by explosion:

A priest, celebrating mass, was forced to run for cover when the explosion hit. 0:37

Several countries have pledged aid in the aftermath of the blast, including Israel. The two countries have been in conflict for decades, and Israel fought a 2006 war with the Hezbollah militant group based in Lebanon.

Canada has promised an initial contribution of $5 million, which will go to humanitarian agencies such as The Red Cross. 

French President Emmanuel Macron announced he would be travelling to Lebanon on Thursday to offer support for the country.

A view shows damaged buildings following Tuesday's blast in Beirut's port area. (Mohamed Azazir/Reuters)

Lebanon is a former French protectorate, and the countries retain close political and economic ties.

France is also sending emergency workers and several tons of aid.

The European Union is activating its civil protection system to round up emergency workers and equipment from across the 27-nation bloc, including firefighters and use of its satellite mapping system to help Lebanese authorities establish the extent of the damage.

Concerns about grain supply

Security forces cordoned off the port area on Wednesday as a bulldozer entered to help clear away debris. A young man begged troops to allow him to enter and search for his father, who has been missing since the blast occurred. He was directed to a port official who wrote down his details.

Drone footage shot Wednesday by The Associated Press showed that the blast tore open grain silos, dumping their contents into the debris and earth thrown up by the blast. Some 80 per cent of Lebanon's wheat supply is imported, according to the U.S. Agriculture Department.

A man removes broken glass scattered on the carpet of a mosque damaged in Tuesday's blast. (Aziz Taher/Reuters)

Estimates suggest some 85 per cent of the country's grain was stored at the now-destroyed silos.

'Criminal negligence'

Lebanon's minister of economy and trade, Raoul Nehme, told CBC Radio's As It Happens that what happened amounts to "criminal negligence" and that it will take aid from the international community to rebuild the city. 

"I'll give you just one example," he said. "Where are we going to bring all the glass to replace windows? We just don't have that. Where are we going to bring the aluminum? We don't have that. All the doors, all the knobs, all the warehouses that were burned down."

Tribunal ruling postponed

The Special Tribunal for Lebanon on Wednesday said it would postpone its verdict in the trial over the 2005 bombing that killed former Lebanese prime minister Rafik al-Hariri to Aug. 18.

The United Nations-backed court located outside The Hague was due to give a verdict this Friday in the trial of four men who are accused in the deaths of Hariri and 21 others.

The verdict has been delayed "out of respect for the countless victims of the devastating explosion," the court's registry said in a statement.

WATCH | Bride knocked down in blast:

A wedding photographer captured the explosion's impact while recording a bridal video. The bride is seen being led to safety. 0:29

Before the explosion, the country had been bracing for the verdict in the case of the men charged with planning and arranging the bombing 15 years ago.

The four defendants, who are not in custody and are being tried in absentia, are linked to Lebanon's Shia Islamist group Hezbollah.

He also admitted that the government will need to make efforts to convince the international community that it is capable of doing what is required to recover.

"We have to do the reforms that have been requested by the international community for over 20 years."

With files from CBC News and Reuters

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