Environment

Lebanese firefighters put out Beirut port blaze

By Tamer Abu Zaid in Beirut

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A Lebanese army helicopter pours water over a huge fire at the Beirut port on September 10th. [Patrick Baz/AFP]

Lebanese firefighters on Friday (September 11th) extinguished a huge fire at Beirut port that broke out Thursday at a warehouse containing food aid.

It was not immediately clear what caused the blaze, which came on the heels of another, smaller fire at the port a few days ago, which the army said took hold of a mix of rubbish, wood and old tyres, AFP reported.

President Michel Aoun said Thursday's fire could have been an "intentional act of sabotage, the result of a technical error, ignorance, or negligence".

"In all cases, the cause needs to be known as soon as possible, and those responsible held to account," he said.

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Lebanese firefighters try to put out a fire that broke out at Beirut's port area, on September 10th. [Anwar Amro/AFP]

Greenpeace meanwhile warned Beirut residents to protect themselves against "toxic" smoke caused by the blaze, which broke out less than 40 days after the massive explosion that rocked Beirut port.

Dense plumes of black smoke covered the skies over Beirut for hours before firefighting and civil defence units, supported by a Lebanese army helicopter, were able to put out the fire.

The fire destroyed a warehouse containing cooking oils, tyres and perfumes, and sparked panic about a repeat of the August 4th explosion.

Port workers sprinted from the area, residents rushed out of Gemmayzeh and Mar Mikhael, and employees left their offices in central Beirut and the vicinity of the port.

'A new stab to all Lebanese'

The Lebanese army said the fire broke out at a warehouse containing oils and tyres at the duty-free market in Beirut port.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said the warehouse contained food aid -- thousands of food parcels and "0.5 million litres of oil".

"Initial information indicates that the blaze was started when a worker was using a tool at a repair shop, producing sparks and triggering the fire," said the outgoing government's minister of transport and public works, Michel Najjar.

A meeting of the Supreme Defence Council called by Aoun ended with the formation of a committee headed by the Minister of Transport and Public Works, with representatives of the security agencies and the port company.

The goal is to establish a new system of work at seaports and the airport that would secure public safety and avoid potential catastrophes that may take place as a result of the storage of goods.

"What happened at the port today, regardless of its causes, is a new stab to all the Lebanese, a major negligence and an insult to the state and society," caretaker Prime Minister Hassan Diab said at the beginning of the meeting.

"The investigation must be expedited so that those responsible can be identified," Diab said. "There must be clear answers to people's questions."

In a social media post, former Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri called for "a transparent investigation on the highest levels", saying the blaze had "reignited pains from the August 4th catastrophe".

"Beirut is suffocating with the smoke of negligence and sense of the absence of state," he added. "Those responsible must be identified, safety precautions must be reviewed, and these recurrent disasters must be prevented."

Anger at 'persistent negligence'

"The picture of the port today is a reflection of the picture of authority," political researcher Bechara Khairallah told Al-Mashareq.

"What happened today is totally and utterly rejected; it is illogical and unacceptable that such a catastrophe take place twice within a month under the eyes of all security agencies," he said.

"How can these materials ignite without a cause and a perpetrator? And how can mistakes of such a magnitude take place so easily and lightly?" he asked.

"This is a total disregard for the security of the Lebanese people," he added.

Activists took to social media to condemn the persistent negligence of state agencies, with some expressing the view that this fire, if anything, proves that the cards of the political class have been burned.

Lebanon has launched a probe into the August 4th blast and has arrested 25 suspects so far, among them top port and customs officials, as well as Syrian workers who allegedly carried out welding hours before the explosion.

On Thursday, the lead investigating judge listened to the testimonies of Najjar and State Security agency head Tony Saliba, the National News Agency said.

Lebanon has rejected an international investigation into the explosion, but its probe is being aided by foreign experts, including from the US and France.

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