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Huge fire at Beirut port weeks after blast

A huge fire raged in Beirut’s port on Thursday just weeks after a deadly blast from a warehouse rocked the city. Sky News journalist Larissa Aoun shared footage of black smoke billowing into the air from the downtown area.The fire sparked alarm among residents still reeling from the deadly dockside explosion that caught people unawares…

A huge fire raged in Beirut’s port on Thursday just weeks after a deadly blast from a warehouse rocked the city.

Sky News journalist Larissa Aoun shared footage of black smoke billowing into the air from the downtown area.

The fire sparked alarm among residents still reeling from the deadly dockside explosion that caught people unawares after 2,750 tonnes of the ammonium nitrate ignited.

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Thick black columns of smoke rose into the sky, as the army said it had engulfed a warehouse storing engine oil and vehicle tyres. It’s unclear what caused the blaze.

“Operations have begun to extinguish the fire and army helicopters will take part,” the military said in a statement on Twitter.

Social media users posted video footage, which sparked alarm among Beirut residents only just recovering from the country’s deadliest peace-time disaster.

“Insane fire at the port, causing a panic all across Beirut. We just can’t catch a break,” Human Rights Watch researcher Aya Majzoub wrote on Twitter.

One video purported to show firefighters battling to contain the blaze with an image of their 10 colleagues who passed away in the deadly blast on their truck.

Human rights researcher Omar Nashabe tweeted: “Where are we living? This is the scene of the crime a month ago! Where is the judiciary? Where is the state? Where is responsibility?”

Haitham, a 33-year-old worker at a company at the port, told AFP how he fled the fire as fast as he could.

“We were working when all of a sudden they started yelling at us to get out,” he said. “There was welding going on… and a fire broke out. We don’t know what happened.

“We dropped everything and started running… It reminded us of the explosion.” Interim port chief Bassem al-Kaissi told local the LBC television channel that the blaze started in the free zone, where an importer had stocked cooking oil containers and tyres.

The fire “started with oil containers before moving on to the tyres,” he said. “It was either caused by the heat or by a mistake. It’s too early to say.”

Civil Defence chief Raymond Khattar said putting out the fire was taking longer because it was rubber and oil burning.

“Flammable materials like this take time to be completely extinguished,” he said.

The Lebanese Red Cross said one person was being treated after inhaling smoke. A judicial source told AFP the public prosecutor had tasked “all security agencies to conduct the necessary investigations and determine the type of materials burnt and the causes of the fire breaking out”.

President Michel Aoun summoned a meeting of the Supreme Defence Council to discuss to fire, his office said.

CITY REELING FROM DISASTER

It comes after a massive mushroom cloud explosion rocked Lebanon’s capital city on August 5.

According to the country’s health ministry, at least 190 people were killed in Lebanon’s worst peacetime disaster, 6000 were wounded with around 20 still missing.

One Australian boy was among those killed by the blast, which tore down buildings, flattened houses, ripped balconies from apartments, tossed cars from the nearby motorway, and sent a huge plume of smoke billowing across the city.

Shocked Beirut City Governor Marwan Aboud said his city was plunged into a “national disaster akin to Hiroshima’’.

Lebanese media carried images of people trapped under rubble, some bloodied, after the explosion.

“All the buildings around here have collapsed. I’m walking through glass and debris everywhere, in the dark,” one witness told AFP.

In the aftermath, Lebanon’s entire government resigned.

Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab slammed Lebanon’s ruling elite for allowing “an apparatuses of corruption bigger than the state”, and compared the explosion to an “earthquake that rocked the country”.

“We have fought valiantly and with dignity,” he said, referring to his cabinet.

“Between us and change is big powerful barrier. We have decided to stand with the people.”

PROBE TO TAKE PLACE

Twenty-five suspects are in custody over the explosion that killed more than 190 people, wounded thousands, and ravaged homes and business across large parts of the capital.

Hundreds of tonnes of ammonium nitrate had been stored unsafely in a port warehouse for at least six years, it emerged after the explosion.

The disclosure sparked widespread outrage over alleged official negligence that many said was to blame for the blast.

Some 2,750 tonnes of the ammonium nitrate were initially stored at the port, but experts believe the quantity that ignited was substantially less than that.

After the explosion, State Security said it had warned the authorities of the danger of the unstable chemicals stored in the port’s warehouse 12, and signalled that some of it had been stolen due to a hole in a wall.

In the week of the blast, workers had begun repairs on the decrepit warehouse. Security sources have suggested the welding work could have started a fire that triggered the blast, but some observers have rejected this as an attempt to shift the blame for high-level failings.

Those arrested so far include top port and customs officials, as well as Syrian workers who allegedly carried out the welding hours before the explosion.

Lebanon has rejected an international investigation into the country’s worst peacetime disaster, but its probe is being aided by foreign experts, including from the FBI and France.

The port blast piled new misery on Lebanese already battling the coronavirus pandemic and the country’s worst economic crisis in decades, which has seen poverty rates double to more than half the population.

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