Lebanon blast probe suspended for second time

Beirut (AFP) –


The lead investigator into the deadly 2020 Beirut port blast suspended his probe Monday after an ex-minister he has called in for questioning requested his removal, a Lebanese court official said.

In a second such suspension, Tarek Bitar will pause blast investigations until a court votes on whether to replace him in response to a complaint filed last week by ex-interior minister Nohad Machnouk, the official said on condition of anomity.

Machnouk is one of a raft of top officials suspected of negligence ahead of the port explosion that killed more than 200 people on August 4 last year.

If removed, Bitar would be the second investigator to be sacked since the explosion amid widespread accusations of obstruction by Lebanon's political barons, who have largely dodged interrogation.

"Bitar has paused his investigation and all procedures linked to the case pending a ruling by the court of appeals," the official said.

Bitar's predecessor Fadi Sawan was removed in February after ex-ministers he had called in for questioning submitted a similar request for a replacement.

The move sparked an outcry from rights groups and relatives of blast victims who accused the political elite of undermining the investigation into Lebanon's worst peacetime disaster every step of the way.

Aya Majzoub, Lebanon researcher at Human Rights Watch, said the latest complaints "should make it patently clear that the Lebanese political class will do everything in their power to derail, obstruct and undermine the investigation and escape justice".

More than a year after the blast that destroyed swathes of the capital, the probe has yet to identify a single culprit.

Resulting calls for an independent international investigation have been roundly rejected by Lebanon's political leaders.

The explosion was caused by hundreds of tonnes of haphazardly stocked ammonium nitrate but what lit the fire remains unclear.

Top officials in parliament, government and top security agencies where all aware of the fertiliser's presence.

Bitar in July demanded that parliament lift the immunity of Machnouk, ex-finance minister Ali Hassan Khalil and former public works minister Ghazi Zaiter so that they can sit for questioning.

But parliament has turned down his request and top leaders, including the powerful Shiite movement Hezbollah, have accused Bitar of political bias.