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Toll expected to rise in blast that shook Beirut, killing 78 and injuring thousands

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(Last Updated On: August 5, 2020)

Lebanese rescue workers dug through the rubble looking for survivors of a powerful warehouse explosion that shook the capital Beirut, killing 78 people and injuring nearly 4,000 in a toll that officials expected to rise, Reuters reported Wednesday.

Tuesday’s blast at port warehouses storing highly explosive material was the most powerful in years in Beirut, already reeling from an economic crisis and a surge in coronavirus infections.

President Michel Aoun said that 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate, used in fertilizers and bombs, had been stored for six years at the port without safety measures, and he said that was “unacceptable”.

He called for an emergency cabinet meeting on Wednesday.

Officials did not say what caused the blaze that set off the blast. A security source and local media said it was started by welding work being carried out on a hole in the warehouse.

“What we are witnessing is a huge catastrophe,” the head of Lebanon’s Red Cross George Kettani told broadcaster Mayadeen. “There are victims and casualties everywhere.”

Hours after the blast, which struck shortly after 6 pm, a fire still blazed in the port district, casting an orange glow across the night sky as helicopters hovered and ambulance sirens sounded across the capital.

The blast revived memories of a 1975-90 civil war and its aftermath, when Lebanese endured heavy shelling, car bombings and Israeli air raids. Some residents thought an earthquake had struck.

Dazed, weeping and injured people walked through streets searching for relatives.

“The blast blew me off meters away. I was in a daze and was all covered in blood. It brought back the vision of another explosion I witnessed against the US embassy in 1983,” said Huda Baroudi, a Beirut designer.

Prime Minister Hassan Diab promised there would be accountability for the deadly blast at the “dangerous warehouse”, adding “those responsible will pay the price.”

The US embassy in Beirut warned residents about reports of toxic gases released by the blast, urging people to stay indoors and wear masks if available.

Many Missing

“There are many people missing. People are asking the emergency department about their loved ones and it is difficult to search at night because there is no electricity,” Health Minister Hamad Hasan told Reuters.

Hasan said 78 people were killed and nearly 4,000 injured.

Footage of the explosion shared by residents on social media showed a column of smoke rising from the port, followed by an enormous blast, sending a white cloud and a fireball into the sky. 

Those filming the incident from high buildings 2 km from the port were thrown backwards by the shock.

Bleeding people were seen running and shouting for help in clouds of smoke and dust in streets littered with damaged buildings, flying debris, and wrecked cars and furniture.

The explosion occurred three days before a U.N.-backed court is due to deliver a verdict in the trial of four suspects from the Shi’ite Muslim group Hezbollah over a 2005 bombing which killed former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri and 21 others.

Hariri was killed by a huge truck bomb on the same waterfront, about 2 km (about one mile) from the port.

Israeli officials said Israel, which has fought several wars with Lebanon, had nothing to do with Tuesday’s blast and said their country was ready to give humanitarian and medical assistance. 

Shi’ite Iran, the main backer of Hezbollah, also offered support, as did Tehran’s regional rival Saudi Arabia, a leading Sunni power.

At a White House briefing, US President Donald Trump indicated that the explosion was a possible attack, but two US officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said initial information contradicted Trump’s view.

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Attacks are against the values of Islam, Atmar tells OIC chief 

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(Last Updated On: January 20, 2021)

Afghan Foreign Minister Haneef Atmar held talks on Wednesday with Yousef al-Othaimeen, the secretary-general of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), in Saudi Arabia and discussed the current peace talks being held in Doha, Qatar. 

In a statement, the Jeddah-based organization said discussions were held on the peace process, and on how the OIC can support the talks. 

Al-Othaimeen reiterated the OIC’s commitment to supporting the Afghan people, and development projects in Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, the Afghan Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement that Atmar praised the OIC for its role in forging unity among Islamic countries in support of the peace process and for issuing special resolutions to form a consensus among Islamic countries to resolve the crisis in Afghanistan. 

At the meeting, Atmar called the war in Afghanistan illegitimate from the point of view of Islam.

“The crimes that are being committed in Afghanistan today are completely incompatible with the beliefs of Muslims and Islamic teachings; Attacks on female judges, killings of Kabul University students and attacks on maternity hospitals are certainly not justifiable in Islam,” he said.

Atmar also stated that if the opposition is truly committed to peace, the Afghan government would not see any obstacles to national reconciliation and the success of the peace process, and would be ready to pave the way for political participation on all sides in accordance with the free will of the Afghan people and internationally accepted standards.

“We want the Organization of Islamic Cooperation to continue its previous demands to end the bloodshed and resolve the political crisis in Afghanistan through holding follow-up meetings, expert consultations and sending special groups to consult with the teams,” he said. 

In response to the Foreign Minister’s remarks, the Secretary-General of the OIC said that he commends and supports the flexible and adaptable position of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan towards peace.

Al-Othaimeen pointed out that killing, violence and intimidation are contrary to the essence of Islam and that people should be made aware that Islam is not a religion of terror and violence, but a religion of unity and convergence. 

He praised the role of religious scholars in this regard, saying that scholars in Islamic societies have an important position not only from a religious point of view but also from a political point of view.

 

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Iran’s president urges Biden to return to 2015 nuclear deal

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(Last Updated On: January 20, 2021)

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani urged US President-elect Joe Biden on Wednesday to return to a 2015 nuclear deal and lift crippling sanctions on the Islamic Republic.

Biden, who takes office on Wednesday, has said the United States will rejoin the pact that includes restrictions on Iran’s nuclear work if Tehran resumes strict compliance, Reuters reported.

Rouhani said on Wednesday in a televised cabinet meeting that “the ball is in the US court now. If Washington returns to Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal, we will also fully respect our commitments under the pact.”

“Today, we expect the incoming US administration to return to the rule of law and commit themselves, and if they can, in the next four years, to remove all the black spots of the previous four years,” he said.

Tensions have grown between Tehran and Washington since 2018 when US President Donald Trump exited the deal between Iran and six world powers that sought to limit Tehran’s nuclear program and prevent it from developing atomic weapons. Washington reimposed sanctions that have crippled Iran’s economy.

Iran, which denies ever seeking nuclear arms, retaliated to Trump’s “maximum pressure” policy by gradually breaching the accord. Tehran has repeatedly said it can quickly reverse those violations if US sanctions are removed.

Antony Blinken, Biden’s choice for secretary of state, said at his Senate hearing on Tuesday that the Biden administration feels the world was safer with the nuclear deal in place.

“President-elect Biden is committed to the proposition that Iran will not acquire a nuclear weapon,” he said. 

“And we share, I know, that goal across this committee, an Iran with a nuclear weapon or on the threshold of having one with the capacity to build one on short order would be in Iran that is even more dangerous than it already is.”

Rouhani meanwhile stated on Wednesday that “US President Donald Trump’s political career is over today and his ‘maximum pressure’ policy on Iran has completely failed.” 

“Trump is dead but the nuclear deal is still alive,” Rouhani said. 

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Biden team still to review US-Taliban deal: Blinken 

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(Last Updated On: January 20, 2021)

Antony Blinken, President-elect Joe Biden’s pick to lead the State Department, indicated to Congress Tuesday that the incoming president’s team will look closely at what’s already been negotiated with the Taliban. 

At his Senate confirmation hearing on Tuesday, he said he plans to emphatically redirect the trajectory of US foreign policy after four years of the Trump administration.

On whether the US, under Biden, would withdraw all troops from Afghanistan as planned, he said: “The President-elect wants to make sure that even as we pull back our forces that we retain the capacity to deal with any reemergence.” 

He made clear, however, that the Biden team hasn’t been given much access to the agreement outgoing Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the Trump administration negotiated with the Taliban in February last year. 

Blinken said the Biden team will “look closely at what’s been negotiated there … to understand fully what commitments were made and not made by the Taliban.” 

He added: “I don’t believe any agreement is sustainable without protecting gains by women and girls over the last 20 years.”

Among numerous issues he was questioned on, lawmakers also asked Blinken about one of the most concerning major external threats to the US – Iran. 

According to CNN, Trump left the Iran nuclear deal negotiated by the Obama administration and instituted a maximum pressure campaign. But as Trump leaves office, Iran is closer to gaining a nuclear weapon than it was when he entered.

Blinken however made clear the Biden administration feels the world was safer with the nuclear deal in place.

“President-elect Biden is committed to the proposition that Iran will not acquire a nuclear weapon,” Blinken said. 

“And we share, I know, that goal across this committee, an Iran with a nuclear weapon or on the threshold of having one with the capacity to build one on short order would be in Iran that is even more dangerous than it already is.”

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