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Another Beirut Fire Breaks Out at Port

BEIRUT — A large fire erupted in Beirut’s port on Thursday, sending up orange flames and a huge plume of black smoke that terrified residents still recovering from the horrific port explosion that devastated entire neighborhoods last month.

The fire appeared to have started in a warehouse belonging to a private company that imported cooking oil. It then spread to a stock of rubber tires, the port’s interim general manager, Bassem El-Kaissi, said in a telephone interview. “That is why you see the big black clouds,” Mr. El-Kaissi said, adding that it was too early to speculate about how the fire started.

There were no immediate reports of casualties, but President Michel Aoun has called for the formation of a committee to “ensure general safety” in the port and said the fire could have been caused by sabotage, a technical mistake or negligence.

The fire sent up giant orange flames and thick smoke that were visible for miles and spread panic inside the port and in neighborhoods ravaged by last month’s blast, which occurred after a fire in a hangar that stored hazardous materials. Port workers scrambled to flee their offices and residents fled their homes or hid in hallways, fearing that the fire could cause a new explosion.

“I’m telling myself that nothing’s going to happen and it’s probably not a big deal, but you can’t fight the anxiety of opening all the windows, sitting inside a corridor or being jumpy all the time and having people call you, telling you to leave the area,” said Feras Abdallah, 27, an architect whose car and apartment were destroyed by the explosion on Aug. 4.

Fabrizio Carboni, Middle East director for the International Committee of the Red Cross, said that the organization had thousands of food parcels and 500,000 liters of oil stored in the hangar that caught fire.

“Shocking images from the port of Beirut,” Mr. Carboni wrote on Twitter. “Our humanitarian operation risks to be seriously disrupted.”

Mr. Aoun convened a meeting with the Prime Minister and the heads of the security agencies on Thursday to discuss what happened. “It is no longer acceptable for any type of mistake to occur that leads to this kind of fire, especially after the disaster that the first fire caused,” Mr. Aoun said, according to his official Twitter feed.

A smaller fire broke out in the port on Tuesday, also scaring nearby residents before firefighters put it out.

Last month’s blast, the largest explosion in Lebanon’s history, happened when 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate, a compound used in explosives, combusted while a fire raged in the hangar where it was stored. The compound had been improperly kept in Beirut’s port for years.

The Lebanese Army said this month that it had found another stock of more than four tons of ammonium nitrate stored near the port, exacerbating the fears of city residents. The army said it had disposed of the stock.

A New York Times investigation found that an entrenched culture of corruption at the port had left officials who worked there more focused on illicit gains than on ensuring basic public safety.

The explosion last month leveled much of the port and sent a powerful shock wave through residential neighborhoods, shattering windows and doors. More than 190 people were killed, 6,000 wounded and 300,000 displaced from their homes.

Thursday’s fire broke out in a part of the port near a major highway known as the free zone, where companies store goods intended for import that have not yet cleared customs. The area, like much of the port, was heavily damaged in last month’s blast.

Mr. El-Kaissi said that firefighters from Beirut and other municipalities were working to put out Thursday’s fire, in addition to the Lebanese Army, which was dropping water on the flames from helicopters. He played down the possibility that it could cause a new explosion.

“Actually, it is not related to any explosion or anything of that sort,” he said.

The fire continued to rage for several hours. By nightfall, it appeared to be under control, although fire crews were still dousing the area with water and gray smoke continued to rise.

The Lebanese Army also said in a statement that the fire had begun at a warehouse in the free zone where oil and tires were stored. Efforts to clear the area from the earlier blast were continuing when the fire erupted.

A judicial council investigating the explosion has detained about 25 people, including port, customs and security officials, but has made no public statements about its findings.

The outbreak of a large fire so close to the site of the original blast caused some speculation that it had been set deliberately to destroy evidence or help with insurance claims.

Even before last month’s disaster, Lebanon was already confronting a range of crises — a collapsing currency, a persistent protest movement and rampant government corruption.

The devastation from the explosion, along with indications that it had stemmed from negligence from a number of government agencies, has left many Lebanese wondering how their country will recover.

Kareem Chehayeb and Megan Specia contributed reporting.

Source: NYT > World News

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