Lebanon receives Beirut blast satellite images from Russia

Lebanon’s Foreign Minister said Monday his country has received from Russia satellite pictures of the Port of Beirut on the day of last year’s devastating blast. The imagery would be the first made available by a foreign government to the Lebanese probe marred by legal challenges and political disputes.

Lebanon’s Foreign Minister Abdallah Bouhabib said he hoped the images would help figure out what happened that tragic day. He is visiting Moscow and was speaking after a meeting with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov.

“We thanked and highly appreciate receiving satellite images for the blast at Beirut Port on Aug. 4, 2020 and we will hand them over to the Lebanese judiciary, hoping that can help in revealing the truth of this tragedy that has hit Lebanon,” Bouhabib said during a press conference.

Russia’s space agency Roscosmos said it would provide the satellite images after a request from Lebanese President Michel Aoun.

The imagery would be the first received by Lebanon of the day of the blast, a Lebanese judicial official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief the media. Requests to other countries have not be answered, with some saying their satellites were not directed at Lebanon at the time of the blast.

Lavrov said he hoped the images help in the investigation.

He said that the images showed the port of Beirut before the blast and also the scene after the blast.

“Roscosmos experts said it should help specialists figure out what happened based on the character of destruction,” Lavrov said.

“Let’s hope that the Lebanese experts, probably with the help of foreign colleagues, will sort out this issue that has become a serious political irritant for Lebanon,” he said. “We would like to help resolve it as quickly as possible.”

Nearly 3,000 tons of ammonium nitrate — a highly explosive material used in fertilizers — had been improperly stored in the Beirut port for years. On Aug. 4, 2020, the fertilizer ignited, causing a massive blast that killed over 216 people and injured more than 6,000, while destroying parts of the city.

It was described as one of the worst non-nuclear explosions in the world. But more than a year later, it is still unknown what triggered the initial fire that caused the explosion, who was responsible for storing the material in the port, and why it stayed there for so long.

The probe investigating the blast has hit many obstacles, including domestic political disputes and legal challenges by defendants, all of them former government officials or current lawmakers. The probe is now suspended until a high court decides in a legal challenge asking to replace the current leading investigator, judge Tarek Bitar.

Lebanese officials have either questioned his integrity or refused to cooperate with him. The judicial official said the satellite imagery from Russia would remain sealed and in the possession of the prosecutor general until the court reaches a decision on whether Bitar can resume or is replaced. It is not yet clear when a decision will be reached.

Bitar is the second judge to lead the investigation after the first one was removed by a court order following similar accusations leveled against him. Politicians, many who knew of the fertilizers’ presence at the port, accuse the judge of bias or of politicizing the probe.

Theories abound about what triggered the explosion, including even a possible Israeli strike. But nothing has emerged to back up that theory.

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