Lebanese President Michel Aoun says there are two possible causes of Tuesday’s explosion that killed nearly 150 people – either negligence or “external intervention” by a missile or bomb.
It’s believed that the blast occurred when a fire ignited 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate that had been stored at the port since 2013. The cause of the initial fire is unknown.
Aoun said Friday that he asked France for satellite images to see if there were warplanes or missiles in the air at the time of the blast. This differs from the main narrative of recent days, which focused on Lebanese port officials.
Aoun told journalists that he received information on July 20 about the stored material and “immediately ordered” military and security officials to take care of it. He did not elaborate.
He said the investigation into the cause of the explosion is concentrating on 20 people. Port officials have been put under house arrest.
The United Nations human rights commission called for an international investigation, but Aoun rejected the proposal.
Tuesday’s explosion had the force of at least 500 tons of TNT, according to a U.S. government source, who was not authorized to speak publicly. The estimate was based on the widespread destruction, said the source, who has experience with military explosives.
The blast caused carnage over a 6-mile radius and was felt more than 100 miles away.
Ammonium nitrate has been linked to past industrial accidents, including explosions at a fertilizer plant in Texas in 2013, a Chinese port in 2015 and many others.
It was also used in the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, when a truck bomb containing 2.4 tons of fertilizer and fuel oil killed 168 people in a federal building. It’s a common fertilizer that’s highly explosive.
Storage is critical. Left unchecked, ammonium nitrate can be contaminated by industrial elements such as fuel oil. The chemical can also decompose on its own, generating heat.
An explosion of ammonium nitrate releases gases, including nitrogen dioxide, which is orange or reddish in color.
Beirut disaster videos show a gray cloud rising from the port, in what appears to be a large industrial fire. A building explodes, creating an orange-reddish cloud, followed closely by a white mushroom cloud as a shock wave hits.
Earlier this week, President Donald Trump called it a “terrible attack” based on the suspicions of U.S. generals he did not name. However, Defense Secretary Mark Esper later said it was likely an accident.
Rescuers continued pulling bodies from the wreckage Friday.
“Our experience shows that we can find people alive until up to 72, 75 or 80 hours after an explosion or an earthquake, so for now we are still in time and we cling on to this hope,” said Col. Vincent Tissier, head of the French rescue team.
An initial government assessment said 300,000 people – more than 12% of Beirut’s population – had to leave homes damaged or left uninhabitable by the explosion. Many of them have since returned, or are staying in second homes or with friends and relatives. Officials have estimated losses at $10 billion to $15 billion.
France, which has close ties to its former colony, has also sent a team of 22 investigators to help probe the cause of the blast. Based on information from Lebanon so far, France’s No. 2 forensic police official, Dominique Abbenanti, said Friday the explosion “appears to be an accident” but that it’s too early to say for sure.
In an interview with The Associated Press, he predicted “the death toll will grow.”
French police could later question witnesses or suspects, said Eric Berot, chief of a unit involved in the investigation. For now, the French team is dividing up zones to cover with their Lebanese counterparts and will use drones to study the area.
“The zone is enormous. It’s a titanic job,” Berot said. The investigation is complicated by the huge scale of the damage and “the Lebanese situation,” he said, referring to the political and economic crisis.