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Over 60 still missing as Lebanon rejects bid to 'dilute truth'

US Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) (L) talks with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) during a rally with fellow Democrats before voting on H.R. 1, or the People Act, on the East Steps of the US Capitol on March 08, 2019 in Washington, DC. (AFP photo)
Damaged cars are seen at the site of Tuesday's blast, at Beirut's port area, Lebanon, on August 7, 2020. (Photo by Reuters)

More than 60 people are still missing four days after a massive explosion in Beirut on Tuesday, a Lebanese health ministry official says.

“The number of dead is 154, including 25 who have not yet been identified,” the official told AFP on Saturday. “In addition, we have more than 60 people still missing.”

Lebanese Health Minister Hamad Hassan said on Friday the explosion also left some 5,000 people injured. 

According to Lebanese officials, the explosion of 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate, a substance used in making fertilizers and explosives, stored in a warehouse at the port in Beirut caused the disaster.

The United Nations said up to 100,000 children are among the 300,000 people made homeless, including many who have been separated from their families.

The explosion has generated a mix of shock and anger in Lebanon and seen French President Emmanuel Macron to make an uninvited visit to the country, prompting comparisons with the country's "colonial" past.   

A large supply of confiscated explosive material that had been stored in a warehouse at the city's port for the past six years is suspected to have caused the massive explosion, the biggest to ever hit the Middle East, but investigators have only just started to look into what happened.

On Friday, Lebanese President Michel Aoun dismissed calls for an international probe into the devastating Beirut port chemical explosion that shook the capital, stating that such attempts are meant to “dilute the truth.”

“There is no meaning for any verdict if it takes too long to be issued and the judiciary must be swift, because belated justice is not justice then,” Aoun told a press conference. 

He added, “Just like all Lebanese people, I’m angry about the blast that occurred at the port and our goal today is to unveil the truth. No one can push me to commit a mistake, no matter whether we are in a state of war or peace, and no one can prevent me from disclosing facts.”

Aoun noted that “the real consolation [for the Lebanese nation] is the fulfillment of justice. No senior or low-ranking official will enjoy impunity in light of such justice.”

“There are two possible scenarios for what happened: it was either negligence or foreign interference through a missile or bomb,” he said, stressing that he personally asked Macron to provide Lebanese officials with any aerial images that would determine whether there were aircraft or missiles in Lebanon’s airspace before the catastrophic port blast.

“If the French do not possess such images, we will request them from other nations,” Aoun added. Such remarks mark the first time a top Lebanese official has raised the possibility that Beirut port might have been been attacked.

The Lebanese president underlined that 20 people are currently being interrogated as part of the local probe into the deadly incident.

Three senior officials at Beirut port detained 

On Friday evening, Lebanon's Attorney General Judge Ghassan El-Khoury ordered the arrest of three high-ranking officials at Port of Beirut, pending an investigation into the deadly explosion.

The official National News Agency reported that those arrested include General Director of Customs Badri Daher, his predecessor Chafic Merhi and Director General of Beirut Port Hassan Koraytem.

Interior minister threatens to quit 

Interior Minister Mohammed Fahmi said on Thursday he plans to step down from his post if names of those responsible for Beirut port explosion were not disclosed at the end of the investigation deadline.

“I will resign if the investigation committee does not name the culprits responsible for the Beirut blast when the five-day investigation deadline ends,” Fahmi told Lebanon's al-Joumhouria daily newspaper. 

He added that “maximum punishments must be taken against the perpetrators, or I go home ... there is no compromise on this issue.”

 The World Food Program has promised food to affected families and wheat imports to replace lost stocks from the port's silos.

The World Health Organization, meanwhile, has called for $15 million to cover immediate health needs.

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