Aug. 7 (UPI) — Officials in Lebanon on Thursday arrested 16 people in connection to their investigation of a series of explosions at a Beirut port that killed at least 137 people.
Lebanon’s state-run NNA news agency reported that Judge Fadi Akiki, a government representative at the military court, said officials questioned at least 18 ports and customs officials as part of the probe.
No further details were given about the identities of those questioned or arrested.
The arrests come one day after the Lebanese government said it planned to place port officials under house arrest amid an investigation to determine why 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate was stored at nearby warehouses.
Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab blamed the chemical for the larger of two explosions that rocked the city Tuesday.
Human Rights Watch urged Lebanese authorities Thursday to invite international experts to conduct an independent investigation.
“The level of devastation in Beirut is incomprehensible, and the responsible authorities should be held accountable,” Aya Majzoub, Lebanese researcher at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement. “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.”
Human Rights Watch voiced “serious concerns,” however, about the Lebanese judiciary’s ability to investigate.
The group said it has documented previous instances in which the judiciary failed to uphold the rule of law or conduct a thorough inquiry. It added that there’s evidence some judges knew ammonium nitrate was stored at the port and did nothing about it.
“If officials did in fact have notification of a clear threat to life and failed to take reasonable steps to address that threat, then they are responsible for the unlawful deaths,” HRW said.
Wednesday, Amnesty International issued a similar plea, demanding an international mechanism to quickly investigate and asked for humanitarian aid.
“The horrific scenes in the aftermath of the explosion yesterday were devastating for a country already suffering under the strain of multiple crises,” the group said.
Meanwhile, French President Emmanuel Macron promised “unconditional help” during a visit to Beirut on Thursday.
After meeting Lebanese President Michel Aoun upon arrival, Macron told survivors in Beirut’s Gemmayzeh neighborhood that providing help is “the priority.” He also, however, urged government reform in Lebanon and vowed French aid “won’t end up in corrupt hands.”
Macron asked Lebanese leaders to recognize their “historic responsibility” to embrace reforms after the disaster, calling the situation “a political, moral, economic and financial crisis whose first victim is the Lebanese population.”
Beirut Gov. Marwan Abboud said at least 300,000 people are homeless and officials estimated damage in the billions.