Connect with us

World

Beirut bloodshed deepens doubts over port blast probe

Published

on

BEIRUT, Oct 15 (Reuters) – The fate of a probe into the Beirut port explosion appears in increasing doubt after a bitter political dispute about the actions of the judge leading the investigation set off Lebanon’s bloodiest street violence in more than a decade.

Seven Shi’ite Muslims were killed by gunfire that began as people were assembling for a protest called by the Shi’ite group Hezbollah against Judge Tarek Bitar, in hours of clashes that stirred memories of the country’s ruinous 1975-90 civil war.

The violence, which erupted at a boundary between Christian and Shi’ite Muslim neighbourhoods, has added to concerns for the stability of a country that is awash with weapons and grappling with one of the world’s sharpest ever economic meltdowns.

The heavily-armed Hezbollah has accused the Lebanese Forces, a Christian party that had a powerful militia in the war, of opening fire. The LF denies this, condemning the violence which it blamed on Hezbollah “incitement” against Bitar.

Advertisement

The army initially said rounds were fired at protesters as they passed through the Teyouneh traffic circle dividing Christian and Shi’ite Muslim neighbourhoods. It later said there had been an “altercation and exchange of fire” as protesters were on their way to the demonstration.

Guns were fired in the air during separate funerals for two of the dead, one in Beirut and the other in a Shi’ite village in the Bekaa Valley where coffins draped in the green flag of the Shi’ite Amal Movement were carried through the street.

Lebanon’s most powerful group, Hezbollah, has led calls for Bitar to be removed from the probe into the blast, which was caused by a huge quantity of unsafely stored chemicals and felt in Cyprus some 260 km (155 miles) away.

The Iran-backed group accuses him of leading a politicised probe that has picked on certain people, a reference to Hezbollah allies whom Bitar has sought to question on suspicion of negligence that led to more than 200 deaths.

In a Reuters interview, the Sunni Prime Minister Najib Mikati suggested concern over Bitar, saying “a constitutional error” may have been committed, echoing a view that he had exceeded his authority in pursuing top officials.

Advertisement

Many Lebanese including families of the victims are furious, fearing ruling politicians will whitewash the inquiry into one of most powerful non-nuclear explosions ever recorded.

“Lebanon’s ruling establishment will use yesterday’s instability to frame the investigation as doing more harm than good,” said Lina Khatib, director of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Chatham House.

“The impunity enjoyed by the ruling class will push the port investigation to face the same fate as previous attempts to hold those in power accountable for gross transgressions: an indefinite delay with little hope for meaningful results.”

The Lebanese Judges Association rejected calls to dismiss Bitar and defended the judiciary as the “last bastion of the idea of the state”.

The crisis over the probe has paralysed government as it seeks to dig the country out of the financial meltdown. It also risks complicating ties with Western governments from which Beirut hopes to secure aid.

Advertisement

The United States and France want a transparent probe.

PILING ON THE PRESSURE

Bitar’s probe was already struggling, with senior politicians refusing to show up for questioning, leading him to issue arrest warrants that were ignored. A judicial source told Reuters Bitar had no intention of resigning, even as his opponents hold him responsible for bloodshed.

“The only way to stop (Bitar) is if he resigns – if they put more personal pressure on him like what happened yesterday,” said Nizar Saghieh, head of The Legal Agenda, a research and advocacy organisation.

All those Bitar has sought to question deny wrongdoing.

Advertisement

The probe has been criticised by leading Sunnis including former prime ministers who objected to moves to question Hassan Diab, prime minister at the time of the blast, as a suspect.

They have described this as an assault on the post of prime minister, which is reserved for a Sunni.

Mikati, in the interview on Thursday, said it was up to the judiciary, not politicians, to rectify the constitutional error which he said may have been made. It reflects the view of Bitar’s critics who say he exceeded his authority by pursuing senior officials and that any case against such officials should pass through a special parliamentary process and court.

Lebanon’s main Christian parties have been supportive of the probe. The issue is sensitive for the Christian parties partly because, while the port blast killed many Muslims, the bulk of the physical damage was in predominantly Christian areas.Writing by Tom Perry, Editing by William Maclean

Advertisement
Continue Reading
Advertisement
Click to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

World

Taiwan, Europe must defend democracy together, president says

Published

on

November 29, 2021

TAIPEI (Reuters) – Taiwan and Europe must work together to defend against authoritarianism and disinformation, President Tsai Ing-wen told visiting lawmakers from the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia on Monday.

Lithuania has faced sustained pressure from China, which claims Taiwan as its own territory, since allowing the opening of a de facto Taiwanese embassy in its capital.

Beijing has ramped up military and diplomatic pressure on Taipei to accept Chinese sovereignty claims and to limit its international participation, though Tsai says Taiwan will not bow to threats and will defend its freedom and democracy.

Advertisement



Tsai told the lawmakers at the Presidential Office that Taiwan and the Baltic nations – once part of the Soviet Union – share similar experiences of breaking free from authoritarian rule and of fighting for freedom.

“The democracy we enjoy today was hard earned. This is something we all understand most profoundly,” she said.

“Now the world faces challenges posed by the expansion of authoritarianism and threat of disinformation. Taiwan is more than willing to share its experience at combating disinformation with its European friends. We must safeguard our shared values to ensure our free and democratic way of life.”

Matas Maldeikis, leader of the Lithuanian parliament’s Taiwan Friendship Group, told Tsai in response their group was in Taipei to express their solidarity with the island.

“Lithuanian government policy towards Taiwan has wide support in our society. Preserving freedom and the rules-based international order is in the vital interests for both Taiwan and Lithuania,” he said.

Advertisement



There is much opportunity for economic and cultural cooperation, added Maldeikis, whose trip has been condemned by China.

No European Union member state has official ties with Taiwan.

The United States has strongly backed its NATO ally Lithuania in its spat with China.

Lithuania faces problems too with pressure from Russia and Belarus, with migrants on its border with Belarus.

(Reporting by Ben Blanchard; editing by Richard Pullin)

Advertisement



Continue Reading

World

Australia’s reopening plans in doubt after Omicron cases

Published

on

November 29, 2021

By Renju Jose

SYDNEY (Reuters) – Australia will review its plans to reopen borders to skilled migrants and students from Dec. 1, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Monday, after the country reported its first cases of the Omicron coronavirus variant.

Two people who arrived in Sydney from southern Africa tested positive on Sunday for the newly identified variant as officials ordered 14-day quarantine for citizens returning from nine African countries.

Advertisement



Morrison said “it is a bit too early” to reinstate two-week mandatory hotel quarantine for foreign travellers, urging people to remain calm as data had not yet fully determined the severity, transmissibility and vaccine resistance of the Omicron strain.

“So we just take this one step at a time, get the best information, make calm, sensible decisions,” Morrison told Nine News.

Omicron, dubbed a “variant of concern” by the World Health Organization, is potentially more contagious than previous variants. But experts do not know yet if it will cause more or less severe COVID-19 compared to other strains.

Morrison said the national security committee will meet later on Monday to assess the border reopening relaxations due from Wednesday. A meeting of leaders of all states and territories will be held by Tuesday, he said.

Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt said he had asked the country’s immunisation advisory group to review the time frame for COVID-19 booster shots. About 87% of Australia’s population above 16 years of age have been fully vaccinated, above the rates seen in the United States, Britain and many countries in Western Europe.

Advertisement



Health officials in New South Wales said three people who arrived on Sunday from southern Africa had tested positive for COVID-19 and that genomic sequencing was underway to check if they were infected with the Omicron strain.

The new variant has emerged as Sydney and Melbourne, Australia’s largest cities, had begun to allow vaccinated citizens entry from overseas without quarantine from Nov. 1, having shut their borders for more than 18 months.

Both cities have tightened their travel rules with all international travellers ordered to quarantine for 72 hours. Other states have not opened their borders to foreign travellers yet due to varying vaccination rates.

Australia has so far recorded about 209,000 coronavirus cases and 1,997 deaths since the pandemic began.

(Reporting by Renju Jose; Editing by David Gregorio and Stephen Coates)

Advertisement



Continue Reading

World

Earthquake hits remote northern Peru, 75 homes destroyed, no deaths reported

Published

on

November 29, 2021

By Marco Aquino

(Reuters) – A 7.5 magnitude earthquake shook the remote Amazon region of northern Peru on Sunday and was felt as far as Lima in the center of the country, destroying 75 homes but with no deaths reported.

The seismological center of the Geophysical Institute of Peru (IGP) said the earthquake had a depth of 131 kilometers (81 miles) and that the epicenter was 98 kilometers from the town of Santa Maria de Nieva in the province of Condorcanqui.

Advertisement



The quake was felt throughout central and northern Peru. Some residents left their homes as a precaution, according to local radio and television reports.

No damage was reported to the 1,100-kilometer oil pipeline of state-owned Petroperu that crosses the Peruvian Amazon region to the Pacific coast in the north.

The National Institute of Civil Defense (Indeci) said in a statement that 220 homes were affected, 81 uninhabitable and 75 destroyed. Seven places of religious worship and two shopping centers were among damaged facilities, Indeci said, adding that four residents were injured.

President Pedro Castillo said through Twitter that he ordered the immediate deployment of support personnel and took a trip in a military plane to the area.

“We will support those affected and address material damage,” he said.

Advertisement



Walter Culqui, mayor of the town of Jalca Grande in Chachapoyas province, said several houses had been damaged, leaving three non-serious injuries. Part of the church tower in the area collapsed, he said.

Through social networks, electricity cuts were reported in several locations in jungle areas. Local TV images showed stretches of roads blocked by huge rocks and dirt that had been knocked loose.

The U.S. warning system said there was no tsunami warning after the earthquake.

(Reporting by Marco Aquino in Lima and Aakriti Bhalla in Bengaluru, writing by Hugh Bronstein, Editing by Catherine Evans and Mark Porter)

Advertisement



Continue Reading
Advertisement

Trending