Lebanese government rejects need for external investigation of blast

BEIRUT, Lebanon – The leader of the Lebanese resistance group Hezbollah has made a televised address to the nation calling for calm, and demanding a full investigation.

Hassan Nasrallah, the Shiite militia groups’s secretary-general, says Hezbollah did not have explosives or weapons stored at the Beirut port and has denied any role in the explosion which rocked the city causing 158 deaths, injuries to more than 5,000, and which has left 350,000 homeless.

The public in Lebanon are furious that a huge stash of flammable ammonium nitrate was allowed to be stored at the port, and left unattended for more than 6 years, and have staged large protests against the government, which have continued over the weekend.

While it is understood the explosive was ignited there is now increasing concern as to how the fire started which caused the explosion.

Investigations have been launched concerning the unattended storage of the ammonium nitrate but the focus has switched to the fire suspected to have triggered the explosion, and how it originated.

‘Though no evidence has emerged, suspicions linger among Lebanese that Israel may have sought to target Hezbollah weapons at the port. Several Shiite militia bases in Iraq were hit in mysterious strikes attributed to Israel last year, and a drone laden with explosives hit a container in Beirut’s Hezbollah-controlled southern suburbs a year ago,’ a report by The Washington Post on Saturday said.

‘Lebanese President Michel Aoun, a Hezbollah ally, fueled those suspicions Friday, telling local journalists at a briefing that the government has not ruled out an attack.’

“The cause of the explosion has not yet been determined. There is a possibility of external interference via a missile, bomb or any other action,” Aoun was quoted by the Lebanese MTV network as saying. An official in the president’s office confirmed to the ‘Post he made the comments.

‘Aoun and Nasrallah both reject the need for an international investigation into the blast, which many Lebanese have urged. Nasrallah said the Lebanese army is fully capable of conducting an investigation.’

This may be because of the workings of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, established as an international, independent body to investigate the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri, who was assassinated along with twenty-one others in 2005 when a similar, spectacular explosion rocked Beirut causing widespread damage.

The Special Tribunal began its work in 2009 for a three year term, with a budget of $160 million. That term however has had to be extended, and only last week, 11 years later, was the tribunal set to hand down its verdict on who was responsible for the 14 February 2005 killing of Hariri and the other 21 people who died in that explosion. It is not know what the cost of the tribunal has blown out to, but Lebanon had agreed to finance half the costs. Outsourcing the investigation too led to an initial conclusion by the tribunal’s predecessor, the United Nations International Independent Investigation Commission, which it was later determined had no legal basis.

The commission’s initial report, released on 20 October 2005, found high-ranking members of the Syrian and Lebanese governments were involved in the assassination. The report based its findings on key witnesses and on a variety of evidence including patterns of telephone calls between specific prepaid phone cards that connected prominent Lebanese and Syrian officials to events surrounding the crime.

The person who sold most of the phone cards was killed in an apparent car crash a month after the report’s release

The official report, the Mehlis Report, named after the German prosecutor, Detlev Mehlis, who headed the commission, did not identify any Syrian government official responsible for the assassination, however it was later learned the final version which had named many high-ranking Syrian government and military officials as being personally responsible for the death of Rafic Hariri, had those names removed.

‘For example, a previous editing of the report stated that “Maher al-Assad, Assef Shawkat, Hassan Khalil, Bahjat Suleyman and Jamil Al Sayyed” were behind the killing of Hariri. But in the official version, this is replaced by “senior Lebanese and Syrian officials”. Maher al-Assad is the brother of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, and Assef Shawqat, a powerful figure within the government, was married to their sister Bushra. Suleyman is a top Syrian security official and Al Sayyed, the only Lebanese of the four, was the head of Lebanon’s General Security Department at the time of Hariri’s assassination,’ Wikipedia noted.

The motivation for removing the names was never made known.

Regardless prior to the commission handing over to the Special Tribunal in 2009, after the reliability of witnesses was brought into question, and some witnesses recanted, the commission established it had no case again senior Syrian government officials.

The Special Tribunal then, amidst widespread public speculation, turned it’s focus to Hezbollah.

With four men now tried, who invariably have been described as Hezbollah operatives, and more recently as members, and in the latest filings as supporters of the militia group, the final outcome of the independent, international probe will be known, some 15 years after the UN-sponsored body began investigating.

So it is unlikely the Lebanese government, which in part comprises the Hezbollah political wing, will spends hundreds of millions of dollar more having outside parties control the probe, particularly now when it is being suggested an external body could have been responsible for last Tuesday’s blast.

In all likelihood an external body was responsible for the Hariri assassination and a number of other mysterious explosions that occurred, and which destabilized the city in the months leading up to the Israeli invasion in 2006. Officially known as the 2006 Lebanon War, the conflict was precipitated by a cross-border raid by Hezbollah which left three Israeli soldiers dead.

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