Donald Trump appeared to double down on a claim that the Beirut explosion may have been a deliberate attack, despite Lebanon officials suggesting it was the result of a neglected store ammonium nitrate.
Following Tuesday’s huge blast, which has killed at least 135 people and destroyed large swathes of the city, Mr Trump told a White House briefing that the “terrible attack” may have been caused by a bomb.
Trump said US generals told him that the explosion could have been planned. “They seem to think it was an attack,” he said. “It was a bomb of some kind, yes,” Trump added, in comments that left defence chiefs scrambling to explain the president’s position.
On Wednesday, defence secretary Mark Esper appeared to contradict his boss, saying that most believe the explosion “was an accident, as reported”.
It is understood the blast was caused by 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate that had been left in a warehouse in Beirut’s port for around seven years, without adequate safety precautions, according to Lebanese president Michel Aoun.
Mr Aoun has promised a transparent probe into the catastrophic blast and vowed to punish those who are responsible. Lebanon’s cabinet has placed all of Beirut’s port officials on house arrest while the investigation takes place.
Ammonium nitrate is an agricultural fertiliser that can become deadly if left to deteriorate and ignited by fire. According to documents circulating in Lebanon, the lethal cargo of ammonium nitrate docked in Beirut in 2013 on a Russian-owned ship flying a Moldovan flag.
Customs agents repeatedly appealed to Beirut officials to have the fertiliser removed, but their requests were ignored, according to the documents.
Despite growing evidence that the blast was caused by neglected ammonium nitrate, Trump continued to insist that the explosion may have been the result of an attack.
“How can you say accident if somebody left some terrible explosive-type devices and things around perhaps — perhaps it was that. Perhaps it was an attack,” Trump said in a White House briefing on Wednesday after Mr Esper had already spoken to the media.
“I don’t think anybody can say right now. We’re looking into it very strongly right now.”
Trump added: “Some people think it was an attack and some people think it wasn’t. In any event, it was a terrible event and a lot of people were killed and a tremendous number of people were badly wounded, injured. And we’re standing with that country.
“But whether it was a bomb intentionally set off – it ended up being a bomb. But no, I’ve heard it both ways. It could have been an accident and it could have also been something that was very offensive.”
White House chief of staff Mark Meadows defended his boss’s comments, claiming that Trump had only repeated what military officials had told him on Tuesday.
“The president shared with the American people what he was briefed on, with 100 per cent certainty I can tell you that,” Meadows told CNN.
But US officials on Wednesday couldn’t identify any “generals” who delivered any such Beirut message to the president, Associated Press reported.
Rescue teams continued to search through the wreckage for bodies on Thursday. At least 135 people were killed in the blast, but officials expect that number to rise.
Thousands of people have been left homeless and up to 5,000 injured. Prime minister Hassan Diab declared three days of mourning to remember the victims.
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