Outgoing minister, security chiefs to testify in Lebanon blast probe

PEOPLE’S CONFIDENCE: Italy’s Conte calls for government that can gain public trust

BEIRUT: A Lebanese judge leading the probe into Beirut’s catastrophic port blast has summoned an outgoing minister and two security agency heads to testify, a judicial source said on Tuesday.
Judge Fadi Sawan is to hear caretaker transport and public works minister Michel Najjar and State Security agency head Tony Saliba on Thursday, the source said.
“If it turns out there had been negligence on their part, they could become suspects and be interrogated as such,” it said.
Sawan will also hear the account of the influential head of the General Security apparatus, Abbas Ibrahim, next Monday.
Twenty-five suspects are in custody over the monster August 4 monster 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 peace-time disaster, but its probe is being aided by foreign experts, including from the FBI and France.

Meanwhile, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte called on Tuesday for the formation of a new Lebanese government that would gain the trust of the people and work on reforms.
“This is the time to roll up the sleeves and to look to the future, despite the tragedy … and to do this you also need to rebuild the citizens’ trust, trust among citizens and in institutions, to start a new era of national unity,” Conte told reporters after meeting Lebanese President Michel Aoun.
He expressed hope that the new government would be formed as soon as possible in order for it to work on reconstruction and an “urgent programme of reforms.” — AFP/dpa

Protesters demand the removal of the country’s ruling elite, which they accuse of mismanagement and corruption. “It is a difficult challenge, but the objective is within reach if Lebanese authorities all commit to a process of renewal of the institutions and also of the governance — a renewal process that civil society and the Lebanese people have clearly long been asking for,” Conte said.
He started his two-day visit by touring Beirut’s port and the Italian ship that transported aid to firefighters. He will later visit the Italian field hospital that was set up on the outskirts of the capital. Besides Aoun, Conte also met with House Speaker Nabih Berri and Adib.
In an interview with the Lebanese French daily L’Orient-Le Jour, Conte said his visit presents “a concrete testimony of Italian solidarity towards Lebanon and its people.”
His visit to Lebanon comes less than two weeks after a visit by Italian Defence Minister Lorenzo Guerini. The Italian military has a long-established presence in Lebanon. It has nearly 12,000 troops deployed in the country, mostly as part of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), which is under Italian command. — AFP/dpa