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FBI To Investigate Cause of Blast as Lebanon Descends into Chaos

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The FBI will join Lebanese and other international investigators in the probe of the massive explosion at Beirut’s port that killed more than 170 people, injured thousands and caused widespread destruction, a U.S. diplomat said Thursday.

Lebanese authorities had invited the FBI to take part, and it is one way that Washington can help the country deal with the effects of the disaster, U.S. Undersecretary for Political Affairs David Hale said as he toured the Gemayezeh neighborhood, which was damaged by the Aug. 4 blast.

“The FBI will soon join Lebanese and international investigators at the invitation of the Lebanese in order to help answer questions that I know everyone has about the circumstances that led up to this explosion,” he told reporters.

It is still not known what caused the fire responsible for igniting nearly 3,000 tons of ammonium nitrate that were stored for years in Beirut’s port. But documents have emerged that show the country’s top leadership and security officials were aware of the stockpile.

French investigators are also taking part in the probe.

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Lebanese officials agreed Thursday on a judicial investigator to lead the probe under the auspices of the Supreme Judicial Council, which handles crimes that infringe on the country’s national security, as well as political and state security crimes.

The U.S. Embassy said Hale is expected to “reiterate the American government’s commitment to assist the Lebanese people in recovering from the tragedy and rebuilding their lives.”

He will also stress the “urgent need” for embracing fundamental reforms by Lebanon’s leaders.

So far, Washington has offered $18 million in humanitarian assistance provided by U.S. Agency for International Development and the departments of State and Defense.

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The United States is one of the largest donors to the Lebanese armed forces. But Washington views the Islamic militant group Hezbollah, a powerful political player in the government and parliament, as a terrorist organization.

U.S. officials have expressed concerns about aid going to the Hezbollah-backed government.

The Lebanese government resigned on Monday but remains in a caretaker capacity. The resignation came nearly a week after the deadly blast that wrecked Beirut’s port and damaged neighborhoods across the capital.

The World Bank, in a preliminary assessment, said about 50,000 residential units were damaged and 80 percent of residential buildings and infrastructure were impacted, aside from the destruction to the port.

“Beyond the human tragedy, the economic impact of the explosion could be large,” the report said, including a decline in trade, economic activities and government revenues.

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An earlier estimate from Beirut Gov. Marwan Abboud said the blast caused $10 billion to $15 billion in damage, with nearly 300,000 people left homeless.

On Thursday, Lebanon’s Parliament approved a state of emergency in Beirut in its first session since the explosion, granting the military sweeping powers amid rising anger at official corruption and mismanagement.

The state of emergency gives the military the power to declare curfews, prevent public gatherings, censor the media and refer civilians to military tribunals for alleged security breaches.

The move has been criticized by rights groups and others who fear the expanded powers could lead to silencing dissent.

“There is incredible chaos,” rights lawyer Nizar Saghieh said.

He said the state of emergency’s only justification is to extend the power of the state and security agencies and “control the opposition.”

Lawmaker Simon Abi Ramieh called on parliament to form a committee to investigate the blast.

“We are living in a state of institutional blunder,” he said.

“We are in a place and the Lebanese people are somewhere else. … The public wants to know the truth behind the negligence that led to the explosion.”

Lebanon’s political landscape has been shaken by the blast.

Before resigning, the caretaker prime minister proposed early elections, an idea that was not supported by the parliament speaker and other political groups.

Since the resignation, there has been a flurry of closed-door meetings and political haggling to form a government that meets the approval of domestic and international powers.

Lebanon’s complicated political system requires the prime minister to be chosen from among Sunni Muslims.

France’s defense minister was due to arrive in Beirut on Thursday. France has been leading efforts to help Lebanon recover from the blast, including talking to political parties to hasten the formation of a new government.

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