Lebanese president says no one is protected in port investigation

The 2020 explosion killed more than 200 people and injured hundreds

epa08834874 A handout photo made available by the Lebanese official agency Dalati and Nohra shows Lebanese President Michel Aoun delivering a televized address on the eve of the 77th Independence Day, at the presidential palace in Baabda, east of Beirut, Lebanon, 21 November 2020. The Lebanese Presidency announced on 18 November 2020 that all types of national celebrations on the occasion of Lebanon's 77th Independence Day will be cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic.  EPA/DALATI&NOHRA HANDOUT  HANDOUT EDITORIAL USE ONLY/NO SALES
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Lebanese President Michel Aoun on Wednesday said there would be no political protection for anyone implicated in last year’s huge explosion at the Beirut port.

Mr Aoun was responding to protests that erupted on Tuesday over the handling of the investigation.

The blast on August 4 was caused by the ignition of hundreds of tonnes of ammonium nitrate, a highly explosive fertiliser ingredient that had been stored for years at the port with the knowledge of top government officials.

The explosion killed more than 200 people, injured hundreds more and devastated nearby Beirut neighbourhoods.

It is still unclear exactly what caused the explosion, and an investigation by a state-appointed judge has been riddled with charges of political interference.

The delays have frustrated the public, particularly after reports that most of Lebanon’s leadership, including Mr Aoun, knew of the explosive chemicals.

The hours-long protests on Tuesday outside the house of caretaker interior minister Mohammed Fahmi were sparked by his rejection of a request by the new lead investigator into the port blast.

The investigator wanted to remove immunity for one of the most senior officials accused in the port case, general security chief Abbas Ibrahim, allowing him to be questioned.

The protesters considered Mr Fahmi’s refusal to be an obstruction of the investigation.

Families of the victims and explosion survivors held a mock funeral while protesters scuffled with members of the security forces guarding the building, who fired tear gas to disperse the crowd.

Dozens were slightly injured on both sides.

Amnesty International urged Lebanese authorities to lift immunity granted to all officials, saying an impartial investigation was essential for a better future in a country with a history of “entrenched impunity".

“The protesters’ demand is simple: let justice take its course,” said Lynn Maalouf, Amnesty’s deputy regional director. “Any failure to do so is an obstruction of justice.”

Mr Aoun on Wednesday said the investigation was continuing and that “there will be no political cover for anyone who was negligent or guilty".

But he did not address critics who said that Mr Fahmi blocked the investigation.

Mr Aoun’s comments came during a meeting with Patrick Durel, French President Emmanuel Macron’s envoy.

Mr Aoun also approved August 4 as a day of mourning, declaring it a national holiday. Families of the victims have been campaigning for this recognition.

Lebanon is in the middle of the country’s worst economic crisis but the leadership has been unable to form a government to lead negotiations with the International Monetary Fund for a recovery package.

The caretaker government resigned after the port explosion.

Prime minister-designate Saad Hariri has been unable to agree with Mr Aoun on a Cabinet line-up and French and local efforts have failed to bridge their differences.

Mr Hariri on Wednesday met Mr Aoun in a renewed attempt to resolve the political deadlock, after a quick trip to Egypt, a close ally.

He proposed a new 24-minister Cabinet and said he expected a response from Mr Aoun by Thursday. There were reports that this was a last-ditch effort before Mr Hariri stepped down.

“We have entered the ninth month trying to form a government,” he said after the meeting. “Now is a time for the truth.”

Updated: July 14, 2021, 10:38 PM