UN chief calls for impartial probe into Beirut Port blast

BEIRUT (AP) — The U.N. chief called on Monday for an impartial and transparent investigation into last year’s massive Beirut port explosion to ensure justice, after paying tribute to the victims of the blast.

The Aug. 4, 2020 blast has been described as one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in the world. It devastated the Lebanese capital, killing at least 216 people and injuring thousands.

Standing under the rain, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who is visiting Lebanon, laid a wreath at a memorial bearing the names of the victims at the Beirut Port site of the explosion.

The blast was caused by the detonation of hundreds of tons of ammonium nitrate stored in a warehouse at the port for years, apparently with the knowledge of senior politicians and security officials who did nothing about it.

More than 16 months after the government launched a judicial investigation, nearly everything else remains unknown — from who ordered the shipment to why officials ignored repeated warnings of the danger. Families of the victims have been pressing for answers, accusing political parties of obstructing the national investigation.

Later Monday, Guterres tweeted, urging for an impartial and transparent investigation: “The Lebanese people deserve the truth.” And after meeting with Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati, he reiterated his support for the families’ quest for justice.

“I have been receiving messages from many victims claiming for the need of truth to be established, for the need of an independent investigation that is able to produce the truth,” he said. “I fully understand their concerns and I hope that the institutions will be able to guarantee that.”

The local probe, led by Judge Tarek Bitar, has been facing numerous challenges, including criticism by powerful politicians and lawsuits from defendants who have questioned its fairness.

Disagreements over the judge’s work have paralyzed the government, which has not met since Oct. 12 despite the country’s huge economic, financial and political problems. Lebanon’s powerful militant group Hezbollah and two allied groups have demanded that Bitar be replaced.

Guterres urged Lebanon’s political leaders to come together to overcome the country’s multiple crises, particularly the economic meltdown that has sank the once middle-income nation into poverty.

The U.N. chief arrived in Lebanon on Sunday for a three-day visit. He said he is here to express solidarity with the Lebanese people and urged the international community to offer more financial assistance to the country in need of humanitarian assistance.

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