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Lebanon judge probing Beirut blast charges top prosecutor

Lebanon's judge Tarek Bitar, who is investigating the deadly 2020 Beirut port blast, has charged Lebanon's top prosecutor and seven others with probable intent to murder, arson and other crimes, an official said Tuesday.

Bitar had sparked surprise in Lebanon a day before when he charged eight top security and judicial officials, reviving a probe that was suspended for over a year amid vehement political and legal pushback.

It emerged on Tuesday from a judicial source who spoke to AFP on condition of anonymity that Prosecutor General Ghassan Oueidat was among those charged, joining those who had already been announced on Monday including the head of General Security, Abbas Ibrahim, and State Security agency chief Tony Saliba.

The Beirut port blast of August 4, 2020 -- one of history's biggest non-nuclear explosions -- destroyed most of Beirut port and swathes of the capital, killing more than 215 people and injuring over 6,500.

Authorities said the mega-explosion was sparked by a fire in a portside warehouse, where a vast stockpile of the volatile industrial chemical ammonium nitrate had been haphazardly stored for years.

Relatives of the dead have been holding monthly vigils, seeking justice and accountability over the disaster, which they blame on an entrenched ruling class widely seen as inept and corrupt.

A US State Department spokesperson said Tuesday that "we support and urge Lebanese authorities to complete a swift and transparent investigation into the horrific explosion at the Port of Beirut".

- 'Like he doesn't exist' -

Lebanese state institutions have been reluctant to cooperate with the probe, which began the same month as the explosion.

The prosecution service rejected the resumption of the probe, according to a document seen by AFP Tuesday.

"We were only informed of Bitar's decision through the media," Oueidat, the top prosecutor, told AFP.

"Since he considers that the general prosecution doesn't exist, we will also act like he doesn't exist."

The arm-wrestling between Oueidat and Bitar is the latest of crisis-torn Lebanon's mounting woes, as the value of the national currency hit a new record low against the US dollar on Tuesday.

Protesters blocked roads in Beirut and other regions in the evening to voice anger over the weakened Lebanese pound and deteriorating living conditions, the state National News Agency reported.

Bitar's probe has been met with strong opposition from government figures and the powerful Shiite Muslim movement Hezbollah, which has accused him of political bias.

Iran-backed Hezbollah and its ally Amal called for demonstrations to demand his dismissal in October 2021, when a gun battle broke out at a Beirut rally and seven people were killed.

"Port investigation: Tarek Bitar has gone mad," ran the headline of the pro-Hezbollah daily Al-Akhbar, which also accused him of acting "on the basis of American orders and with European judicial support".

Bitar last week met with two French magistrates, who came to Beirut as part of the country's own investigation into the explosion that killed and injured French nationals.

- Delays and pushback -

The judge was forced to suspend his probe for more than a year after a barrage of lawsuits, mainly from politicians he had summoned on charges of negligence.

Bitar now plans to question 14 suspects next month, including five officials whom he indicted earlier -- among them ex-prime minister Hassan Diab and former ministers.

According to the unnamed judicial official, Oueidat had in 2019 overseen a security services investigation into cracks in the warehouse where the ammonium nitrate was stored.

In February 2021, Bitar's predecessor as lead judge was removed from the case after he had charged several high-level politicians.

The interior ministry has also failed to execute arrest warrants issued by Bitar, further undermining his quest for accountability.

Rights group Amnesty International charged Monday that "Lebanese authorities have shamelessly and systematically obstructed the pursuit of justice" and called on them to "ensure that the domestic investigation can proceed without political interference".

str-rh/aya/dv