A team of FBI investigators is due to arrive in Lebanon this weekend to take part in the investigation into Beirut’s explosion, a senior US official has said, after visiting the location of the blast.
David Hale, the US undersecretary of state for political affairs, called on Saturday for a thorough and transparent investigation. He said the FBI team was taking part at the invitation of Lebanese authorities in order to figure out what caused the 4 August explosion that killed nearly 180 people and wounded thousands.
The cause of the fire that ignited nearly 3,000 tonnes of ammonium nitrate at Beirut’s port remains unclear. Documents have emerged showing the country’s top leadership and security officials were aware of the chemicals stored at the port. France is also taking part in the Lebanese-led investigation.
“We really need to make sure that there is a thorough, a transparent and credible investigation. I know that is what everyone is demanding,” Hale said.
Search and rescue crews flew in from around the world in the immediate aftermath. Hale toured the site of the blast with Lebanese army officers.
Many Lebanese people want the investigation taken out of the hands of their government, fearing that bickering among the entrenched political factions, notorious for corruption, will not allow results to come to light that might damage their leadership.
Top Lebanese officials, including President Michel Aoun, have rejected calls for an independent investigation, describing it as “a waste of time” that would be politicised.
On Friday, the leader of the powerful Hezbollah group said he did not trust any international investigation, in a clear reference to the FBI’s assistance. Hassan Nasrallah said the cause of the explosion was still unclear, adding that any international investigation would also have to clear Israel of any responsibility in the port explosion.
Nasrallah added that Israel would be met “with an equally devastating response” if the investigation pointed to its involvement.
Israel has denied involvement and so far no evidence has emerged suggesting otherwise. However, Aoun, who is supported by Hezbollah, has said it is one of the theories being investigated.
Hale also stressed the need for full state control over ports and borders, in an apparent reference to claims that Hezbollah holds influence over both in Lebanon. “We can never go back to an era in which anything goes at the port or borders of Lebanon,” he said.
Lebanon’s government resigned on 10 August. For now, there are no formal consultations under way on who will replace Hassan Diab as prime minister and no likely candidate has emerged. But the flurry of diplomatic visits appeared to be designed to influence the forming of the new government.
Public anger has risen over the ruling elite’s corruption, mismanagement and political uncertainty. Western leaders have said they will send aid directly to the Lebanese people and that billions of dollars will not be pumped into the country before significant reforms take place.
On Friday, the United Nations launched a $565m (£432m) appeal for Lebanon with immediate humanitarian assistance and initial recovery efforts.
Washington and its allies consider Hezbollah a terrorist organization, and have accused the Iran-backed group of abusing government funds. Local media have speculated that Hale would be pushing for a government that excludes Hezbollah.