Beirut explosion rocks Lebanon's capital city

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4:22 a.m. ET, August 6, 2020

Human Rights Watch calls for independent investigation into the blast

From CNN’s Jonny Hallam and Mohammed Tawfeeq in Atlanta and Mostafa Salem in Abu Dhabi 

The non-profit organization Human Rights Watch has called on Lebanese authorities to invite international experts for an independent investigation into Tuesday's blast, which rocked the capital Beirut.

“Given the Lebanese authorities’ repeated failure to investigate serious government failings and the public’s distrust of government institutions, an independent investigation with international experts is the best guarantee that victims of the explosion will get the justice they deserve,” said Aya Majzoub, Lebanon’s researcher at HRW, in a statement on Thursday.

“The investigation should determine the causes and responsibility for the explosion and recommend measures to ensure it cannot happen again. The Lebanese government should ensure that those affected by the blast have access to adequate housing, food, water, and health care, with all aid distributed fairly and impartially.”

Questions of judicial independence: Human Rights Watch expressed serious concerns about the ability of the Lebanese judiciary to conduct a credible and transparent investigation on its own.

“Lebanese and international rights groups have for years documented political interference in the judiciary and criticized its lack of independence," the statement said. “Further, initial evidence suggests that some judges were aware that the ammonium nitrate was stored in Beirut’s port and allegedly failed to take action,” the statement added 

Some context: Authorities are still investigating the cause of the explosion, but Lebanon's prime minister said the probe would focus on an estimated 2,750 metric tons of the explosive ammonium nitrate stored at a warehouse at the port.

It has been there since 2014, despite the director of Lebanese Customs repeatedly warning the government of its danger over the years.

4:04 a.m. ET, August 6, 2020

One French citizen dead and 24 injured from the explosion

From CNN's Barbara Wojazer

One French national died in the Beirut blast and 24 others were injured, the Junior Minister to France's Foreign Ministry said on Thursday.

French architect Jean-Marc Bonfils was killed in the explosion, Jean-Baptiste Lemoyne told France Inter radio.

Among the 24 others, three have serious injuries, Lemoyne added.

Around 25,000 French citizens live in Lebanon, with about eight out of 10 holding dual nationality.

3:36 a.m. ET, August 6, 2020

France's Macron will meet Lebanon's President to discuss the path forward after the blast

From CNN's Pierre Bairin in Beirut

French President Emmanuel Macron will meet Lebanese President Michel Aoun on Thursday, the Elysée Palace told CNN.

Macron wants to “say that France is there” at Lebanon’s side, said the Elysée. This trip is an opportunity for him to “restore the confidence of the Lebanese people, to tell them there is a path forward and that France is here to walk this path with them."

It is also an “opportunity to set the clear basis for a contract for the restoration of Lebanon, demanding for all, limiting conflicts, offering an immediate relief with a long term perspective," according to the Elysée.

The schedule: Macron will land around noon local time and will be welcomed by Aoun, the Elysee Palace said. Macron will then discuss with Aoun, with Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab, and with House Speaker Nabih Berri successively. 

He will also meet with Lebanese and French rescue teams, and will visit the French Ambassador’s residence.

Macron will hold a news conference at 6:30 p.m. local time before leaving for Paris.

3:13 a.m. ET, August 6, 2020

Opinion: Don't blame fate for Beirut's cruel tragedy

From Frida Ghitis

Editor's note: Frida Ghitis, a former CNN producer and correspondent, is a world affairs columnist. The opinions expressed here are those of the author.

Sometimes, it seems as if fate is trying to prove its unlimited capacity for cruelty. When the skies over Beirut exploded on Tuesday, sending shockwaves felt all the way to Cyprus, 150 miles away in the Mediterranean, and devastating much of a city that was once known as the Paris of the Middle East, it seemed one of those times.

But the never-ending tragedy that is Lebanon is not the result of the random doings of destiny.

Lebanon's government has blamed a large quantity of poorly stored ammonium nitrate for the blast that rocked the city, killing at least 135 people, injuring more than 5,000 and destroying the capital's critical port, through which most of the goods Lebanon needs -- including food -- enter the country. Some 300,000 may have been left homeless.

Initial investigations of the catastrophe appear to show it was the result of a confluence of ludicrously reckless practices and non-existent concern for safety -- though we can't know for sure this early. The Prime Minister has promised a full investigation.

The Lebanese people have long suffered as a consequence of the actions and behavior of venal, incompetent individuals; of power-hungry politicians, businesspeople, and shadowy figures, and of geopolitical actors who have made the country their plaything at the expense of good governance.

So it was not surprising that the explosion immediately ignited a storm of speculation and suspicion. What and who caused the cataclysm, everyone wanted to know.

Read the full op-ed here:

2:35 a.m. ET, August 6, 2020

A Russian ship's cargo of dangerous ammonium nitrate was stranded in Beirut port for years

From CNN's Mary Ilyushina and Katie Polglase

Military personnel stand amid debris on August 5, in Beirut, Lebanon.
Military personnel stand amid debris on August 5, in Beirut, Lebanon. Marwan Tahtah/Getty Images

Lebanese officials investigating Tuesday's blast in Beirut have pointed to a possible cause: A massive shipment of agricultural fertilizer that authorities say was stored in the port of Beirut without safety precautions for years, despite warnings by local officials.

The shipment contained ammonium nitrate (AN), a highly volatile compound used in fertilizers -- and in explosives for mining.

How did the AN end up in Beirut port? In 2013, the MV Rhosus set off from Batumi, Georgia, destined for Mozambique. It was carrying 2,750 metric tons of ammonium nitrate.

The Moldovan-flagged ship stopped in Greece to refuel. That's when the ship's owner told the Russian and Ukrainian sailors that he had run out of money and they would have to pick up additional cargo to cover the travel costs -- which led them on a detour to Beirut.

Once in Beirut, the ship was detained by local port authorities due to "gross violations in operating a vessel," unpaid fees to the port, and complaints filed by the Russian and Ukrainian crew.

It never resumed its journey. The sailors eventually abandoned the ship, and the Russian crew was brought back home.

"At the time, on board of the dry cargo ship there were particularly dangerous goods -- ammonium nitrate, which the port authorities of Beirut did not allow to unload or transfer to another ship," said the Seafarers' Union of Russia, which represented the Russian sailors.

The AN was unloaded in Beirut's port by November 2014 and stored in a hangar, where it was kept for six years, despite repeated warnings from the Director of Lebanese Customs of the "extreme danger" that it posed.

Read the full story:

1:44 a.m. ET, August 6, 2020

Turkish military plane carrying aid arrives in Beirut

From CNN's Raja Razek

A Turkish military plane carrying aid and equipment has arrived in Beirut, Lebanon's state-run National News Agency reported on Thursday.

Mehmet Gulluoglu, Turkey's Head of Disaster and Emergency Management Authority, arrived on the plane, which was loaded with medical supplies, medicine, and advanced equipment to detect and search for missing people, according to NNA. 

Maj. Gen. Mohammed Kheir, the Head of Lebanon's High Relief Commission, thanked Turkey for its assistance and praised "all the countries that rushed to the rescue of Lebanon in the dire conditions it is going through," NNA said.

1:14 a.m. ET, August 6, 2020

A grandmother played "Auld Lang Syne" on a piano, the only thing left in her destroyed home

From CNN's Alicia Lee and Paul P. Murphy

Chaos would be an understatement to describe the scene at May Abboud Melki's house in Beirut on Wednesday evening. Furniture was strewn about, the walls punctured with holes, glass and debris all over the floor.

But for a few minutes, the world paused and things seemed peaceful as the 79-year-old played "Auld Lang Syne" on the only item seemingly left unscathed -- her beloved piano.

Thankfully, the grandmother and her husband weren't home during Tuesday's massive explosion. Neither were injured in the blast.

When they returned on Wednesday, however, they were devastated to see that the home that they had lived in for 60 years was in shambles.

As soon as May Abboud Melki entered the house, she headed straight to her piano, which had been a gift from her father on her wedding day.

As about a dozen volunteers swept up the glass and tried cleaning up the house, she sat at the piano and started playing.

"She pushed through the pain and tried to have a few moments of peace," said her granddaughter, May-Lee Melki.

She started with the classic "Auld Lang Syne," but then started playing Arabic hymns, which prompted the volunteers to gather around and start worshiping. "To see her lean into her faith, lean into God was something that was a strong message to her community and our family immediately," her granddaughter said.

Read more here:

12:38 a.m. ET, August 6, 2020

Trump again claims Beirut explosion "perhaps was an attack," despite no evidence

From CNN's Daniel Dale, Holmes Lybrand and Tara Subramaniam

A Lebanese couple inspect the damage to their house in an area overlooking the destroyed Beirut port on August 5.
A Lebanese couple inspect the damage to their house in an area overlooking the destroyed Beirut port on August 5. Joseph Eid/AFP/Getty Images

US President Donald Trump made a number of false claims at a briefing on Wednesday, including some on the Beirut explosion. Here's a CNN fact check:

What Trump said: The President was asked about his earlier claim that US generals believe the massive explosion in Beirut was an "attack" with a "bomb of some kind."

The reporter noted that Defense Secretary Mark Esper said earlier Wednesday that "most believe" the incident was an accident.

Trump retreated at least slightly, saying, "They don't really know what it is. Nobody knows yet."

But then he said, "Somebody was, you know, left some terrible explosive type devices and things around, perhaps. Perhaps it was that. Perhaps it was an attack. I don't think anybody can say right now. We're looking into it very strongly. Right now, it's -- I mean, you have some people think it was an attack and you have some people that think it wasn't."

Fact check: Again, though Trump cited "generals" on Tuesday, the defense secretary's statement suggested there was a consensus that the incident was an accident.

Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab said Tuesday that 2,750 metric tons of ammonium nitrate, typically used as an agricultural fertilizer, had been stored for six years at a warehouse in the Beirut port without safety measures; it is not yet clear what might have caused the explosion, but Diab has not alleged a purposeful act.

White House chief of staff Mark Meadows told CNN on Wednesday that Trump's claim was based on initial reports he had been briefed on. Regardless, nobody has presented evidence at this point to corroborate any such reports.

Read more:

12:10 a.m. ET, August 6, 2020

One moment, they were filming the bride in her wedding dress. Then came the explosion

From CNN's Harmeet Kaur and Paul P. Murphy

The happy couple was supposed to be celebrating their marriage.

Dr. Israa Seblani and Ahmad Sbeih were on the streets of Beirut on Tuesday, with Seblani posing for photos in a dramatic, white wedding gown. It was a day like any other in the city's Saifi Village, she said, with people out and about shopping and dining in restaurants.

Then all of a sudden, there was a loud noise. Seconds later, an eardrum-shattering blast erupted behind her.

That horrifying sound was the massive explosion which rocked the Lebanese capital, leaving at least 135 dead and 5,000 injured. Mahmoud Nakib, the couple's wedding photographer, captured the moment it all went down.

"We were filming an outdoor photo session for (Seblani) and (Sbeih), then we heard an explosion," Nakib told CNN. "That was the first explosion, we thought that is was far away, we continued filming normally."

But that soon changed. "In just one second, the sky turned black and we heard the second explosion," Nakib said.

As the explosion went off, an intense gust of wind created by the its shock wave roared through the square, the video showed.

"The area I was in -- within matter of seconds -- it went from beautiful place to ghost town filled with dust, shattered glass and people yelling [and] bleeding," Seblani told CNN. "It was like a nightmare scene."

Seblani, Nakib and the rest of the wedding party headed inside as the blast echoed through the streets of Beirut. Everyone in the wedding party is doing OK, and no one was hospitalized.

Read more of their story and see the footage here: