Lebanon’s president has revealed he knew about the huge stockpile of explosives at Beirut’s port almost three weeks before they blew up.
President Michel Aoun was told about the 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate on 20 July – and he claimed he subsequently ordered officials to “do what is needed”.
The stockpile had been there since 2013 after being confiscated from an impounded cargo ship, but Mr Aoun said he “had no authority to deal directly with the port” and didn’t know “where it was placed”.
When a reporter asked whether he should have followed up on his order, Mr Aoun said: “Do you know how many problems have been accumulating?”
He added: “There are ranks that should know their duties, and they were all informed.
“When you refer a document and say ‘Do what is needed’ – isn’t that an order?”
Documents show Lebanese authorities across customs, the military, security and the judiciary raised the alarm 10 times in the seven years the explosives were there.
Mr Aoun took office in 2016 after Lebanon suffered two years without a president while political factions squabbled.
But he blames previous administrations for the explosion, adding: “The material had been there for seven years, since 2013. It has been there, and they said it is dangerous and I am not responsible.
“I don’t know where it was placed. I don’t even know the level of danger. I have no authority to deal directly with the port.”
The chemicals – used for explosives and fertiliser – killed at least 154 people when they caught fire on Tuesday, according to Lebanon’s health minister.
Thousands have been left injured or homeless, with at least three more bodies being recovered by rescue teams in the 24 hours leading up to Friday morning.
So far it is not clear how the blast happened, but Mr Aoun confirmed on Friday that officials are investigating the “possibility of external interference through a rocket or bomb or other act”.
So far, at least 16 port employees have been detained and others questioned.
Investigators have ordered the detention of the head of the port, Hassan Koraytem, the country’s customs chief, Badri Daher, and his predecessor.
Fierce protests have broken out across Beirut as residents blame the country’s political elite, which they claim is riddled with corruption.