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3 years after the explosion in the port of Beirut, the intrigue thwarts an investigation and even the death toll is disputed

BEIRUT (AP) — Three years later Massive Beirut port explosionAttempts to prosecute those responsible are mired in political intrigue, the final death toll remains in dispute, and many Lebanese have less faith than ever in their crumbling state institutions.

As the country celebrates the anniversary on Friday, relatives of some of the dead are still fighting to have their loved ones recognized as victims of the blast, reflecting the ongoing chaos since the explosion on August 4, 2020. The blast killed at least 218 people, according to an Associated Press count, injured more than 6,000, devastated large swaths of Beirut and caused billions of dollars in damage.

Among those who have not been recognized as victims of the blast is a five-month-old boy, Qusai Ramadan, the son of Syrian refugees. His parents say he was killed when the blast brought down the ceiling and a cupboard in his hospital room, crushing him. They have been unable to add the baby to the official death list, a move that could have made them eligible for future compensation.

They accuse the authorities of discriminating against non-Lebanese victims.

Meanwhile, the anniversary of the explosion brought renewed calls for an international investigation of those responsible, including top officials who allowed hundreds of tons of highly flammable ammonium nitrate, a material used in fertilizers, to be improperly stored for years in a warehouse in port.

Lebanese and international organizations, survivors and families of the victims sent an appeal to the UN Council on Rights, saying that on the third anniversary of the explosion, “we are no closer to justice and accountability for the catastrophe.”

Hundreds of people marched in the Lebanese capital on Friday to mark the anniversary, with some relatives of the victims calling on the international community to help in the investigation.

Carrying roses and photos of their loved ones, the families led the march and gathered in front of the Beirut port. The names of the victims were read out and a moment of silence was observed at 6:07 pm, the time the explosion occurred.

The mother of one of the victims called for an international and impartial investigation “within the framework of the UN”.

“Three years have passed and they have turned a deaf ear to this request and this hurts a lot,” said Mireille Bazergy Khoury, the mother of Elias Khoury, who was killed in the blast. “This crime is not a Lebanese problem. The victims are all of all nationalities. Please take action.”

Maan, a Lebanese group that advocates for victims and survivors, put the death toll at 236, significantly higher than the government count of 191. Authorities stopped counting the dead a month after the blast, even as some of the seriously wounded died later.

Among those listed by the Maan initiative is Qusai, the Syrian infant. He had been receiving treatment for a severe liver condition and was transferred to a government hospital near the port a week before the explosion. Hospital staff said the baby needed a liver transplant and was in critical condition.

On the day of the explosion, Qusai’s aunt, Noura Mohammed, was sitting by his bed while his mother rested at home. The aunt said the staff ordered everyone to evacuate immediately after the explosion and when she returned she found the baby dead, crushed by falling debris.

Hospital officials said Qusai died an hour after the blast and the death certificate listed cardiorespiratory arrest as the cause. The family buried him a day later.

“We asked (the authorities) to register my son among the victims of the explosion,” his mother, Sarah Jassem Mohammed, said in a recent interview in a small tent in an orchard in the village of Markabta, in the northern Lebanon, where he lives. she with her husband, two sons and a daughter. “They refused.”

Lebanon is home to more than 1 million Syrian refugees, representing around 20% of the country’s population. A Lebanese group, the Anti-Racism Movement, said those killed in the blast included at least 76 non-Lebanese citizens, including 52 Syrians.

Meanwhile, many in Lebanon have been losing faith in the internal investigation and some have begun Filing cases abroad against companies suspected of bringing ammonium nitrate.

The chemicals had been shipped to Lebanon in 2013. Senior political and security officials knew of their presence and potential danger, but did nothing.

Both Lebanese and non-Lebanese victims have seen justice delayed, with the investigation stalled since December 2021. Lebanon’s powerful and corrupt political class has repeatedly intervened in the work of the judiciary.

In January, Lebanon senior prosecutor Ghassan Oueidat ordered the release of all suspects detained in the investigation.

“The political class have used every tool at their disposal, both legal and extralegal, to undermine, obstruct and block the internal investigation into the explosion,” said Aya Majzoub, deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa at human rights group Amnesty. . International.

Makhoul Mohammed, 40, a Syrian national, was slightly injured in the blast at his Beirut apartment, while his daughter Sama, who was 6 at the time, lost her left eye.

Mohammed, who settled in Canada last year, said he plans to sue those responsible for the blast in a Canadian court.

“The (internal) investigation will not give results as long as this political class runs the country,” he said.

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