BEIRUT – Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah warned Friday not to hold the Shiite militia responsible for the massive blast at Beirut’s port, as many Lebanese pointing to Hezbollah as a source of problems that helped bring about the tragedy.
Nasrallah – in a televised address as the death toll from Tuesday’s explosion and fireball topped 150 – responded to growing calls that Hezbollah to be held at least partially accountable.
The group, which has a powerful place in Lebanon’s government, is widely believed to use the port facility for its own smuggling operations and more generally because it operates a parallel state outside official structures, contributing to the weaknesses in institutions to run and regulate the country.
Hezbollah is strong enough to counter challenges from any faction, Nasrallah cautioned in address televised live by the movement’s Al-Manar TV station.
“If you want to start a battle against the resistance over this incident, you will get no results,” Nasrallah said, referring to Hezbollah.
“The resistance, with its strength and patriotism, is greater and bigger and stronger than to be hit by those liars who want to push and provoke for civil war,” he added. “They will fail and they will always fail.”
His comments came mounting fury among ordinary Lebanese at the negligence, corruption and mismanagement of successive Lebanese governments, which have included Hezbollah, that allowed a huge stash of flammable ammonium nitrate to sit unattended at Beirut’s port for more than six years.
A fire that broke out ignited the stockpile, triggering a huge explosion that wrecked large swaths of the city, killed at least 154 people and injured thousands.
Activists have called for demonstrations Saturday to protest the government dysfunction widely blamed for the blast. The slogan for the march: “They are the murderers,” referring to politicians.
If big crowds turn out, the demonstration could revive the mass protest movement that erupted in October but has since died down.
Nasrallah’s speech otherwise struck a conciliatory note.
He appealed to Lebanese to unite to confront the vast challenge presented by the destruction of so much of their capital city at a time when the country was already struggling to cope with an economic and financial collapse and surging numbers of coronavirus infections.
“The country needs time to heal. Afterward, we will discuss politics,” he said.
But the blast has thrust a spotlight onto Hezbollah’s role as the country’s single most powerful faction – both a participant in the government and as a separate entity. Hezbollah has its own fighters, arsenal and an extensive network that is widely assumed to include smuggling operations at the port, the airport and along the country’s border with Syria.
Investigations are still underway into the cause of the blast, including what caused the fire that spread to the warehouse housing the ammonium nitrate.
Though no evidence has emerged, suspicions linger among Lebanese that Israel may have sought to target Hezbollah weapons at the port. Several Shiite militia military bases were hit in mysterious strikes attributed to Israel in Iraq last year, and a drone laden with explosives hit a container in Beirut’s Hezbollah controlled southern suburbs a year ago.
Lebanese President Michel Aoun, a Hezbollah ally, fueled those suspicions Friday, telling local journalists at a briefing that the government has not ruled out an attack.
“The cause of the explosion has not yet been determined. There is a possibility of external interference via a missile, bomb or any other action,” he was quoted by the Lebanese MTV network as saying. An official in the president’s office confirmed that he had made the comments.
Aoun and Nasrallah both reject the need for an international investigation into the blast, which many Lebanese have urged. Nasrallah said the Lebanese Army is fully capable of conducting an investigation.
On the streets of Beirut, rescue workers were pressing ahead with the search for victims.
They pulled three more bodies from the rubble as investigators prepared to question officials over the blasts.
Lebanese Health Minister Hamad Hassan said Friday that 154 people were killed in the explosions. More than 5,000 residents were injured.
Nearly a quarter of those wounded required hospitalization, Hassan said Friday. At least 120 people were in critical condition, he said.
As Beirut’s cleanup continued – led by citizens, not the government – a ragged protest group marched down the once-vibrant thoroughfare of Gemmayze, passing the rubble that had been people’s homes.
“The people demand the fall of the regime,” they chanted.
French and Russian rescue teams, including 22 French investigators, were assisting in search and relief efforts and evidence recovery, Lebanese media reported. Early Friday, civil defense workers discovered the body of Joseph Akiki – an electrician at the port complex – just hours after his mother appeared on television to plead for her son’s return. Her interview was circulated widely online as angry Beirut residents clashed with security forces overnight.
The U.S. Embassy in Beirut said Friday that the United States has pledged more than $17 million in initial disaster aid for Lebanon, including food, medical supplies and financial assistance for the Lebanese Red Cross.
On Thursday, a C-17 U.S. military transport aircraft landed in Beirut carrying the first tranche of emergency assistance, the statement said. Two more flights were scheduled to arrive Friday, carrying meals, water and medical kits for the Lebanese armed forces.
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Cunningham reported from Istanbul. Loveluck reported from Baghdad.