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The devastating blast sparked by a fire injured more than 5,000 people and killed at least 135, officials have said, as they warned the death toll is expected to rise. Multiple public records and documents published online show senior Lebanese officials have since 2014 known of the huge risks of storing the material at Hangar 12 of the port.
Months after the cargo was offloaded from a ship into the hangar in early 2014, the then-director of Lebanese Customs Shafik Merhi sent a letter addressed to an unnamed “Urgent Matters judge”.
He implored the judge for a solution to the cargo, documents online show.
And customs officials at the port sent at least five more letters over the next three years asking for guidance on the situation.
They also warned that the material posed a danger to public safety.
The five letters were sent in December 2014, May 2015, May 2016, October 2016 and October 2017.
Customs officials mentioned three options in their letters.
They said the ammonium nitrate should either be exported, handed over to the Lebanese Army or sold to the privately-owned Lebanese Explosives Company.
President Michel Aoun said 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate, used in fertilisers and bombs, had been stored for six years at the port without safety measures, after it was seized.
In a national address, he said: “No words can describe the horror that has hit Beirut last night, turning it into a disaster-stricken city”.
President Aoun said the government was “determined to investigate and expose what happened as soon as possible, to hold the responsible and the negligent accountable.”
An official source familiar with preliminary investigations blamed the incident on “inaction and negligence”.
They claimed “nothing was done” by committees and judges involved in the matter to order the removal of hazardous material.
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The Lebanese cabinet has ordered port officials involved in storing or guarding the material since 2014 to be put under house arrest.
The cabinet also announced a two-week state of emergency in Beirut.
Countries have rallied around Lebanon in its hour of need.
Britain is to send a £5million aid package including search and rescue help and expert medical support.
A British-Lebanese fundraiser has said the explosion in Beirut evoked memories of the Grenfell Tower fire as he urged Britons to aid those affected.
Oz Katerji, a journalist from London, raised more than £12,000 within hours of creating a GoFundMe page to help those affected, but believes more needs to be done.
The 33-year-old, whose father is Lebanese, said: “For me as a Lebanese person, watching the devastation unfold in Beirut was similar to the feeling I had as a Londoner of watching Grenfell Tower going up.
“However, it’s not one tower, it’s half of the city that has had its world turned upside down right now.
“Luckily my family made it through shaken but OK, but what’s more important now is those who have been more profoundly impacted by the blast.
“Seeing neighbours suffering in this manner drives you to do things that you wouldn’t normally and help your fellow man – as we saw in London after Grenfell.”
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