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Beirut explosion: Pentagon chief contradicts Trump, says blast was an 'accident'

Three defence officials say they are unaware of where president got indication incident was 'terrible attack'
Lebanese soldiers stand guard while a helicopter puts out a fire at the scene of the explosion
Lebanese soldiers stand guard as helicopter battles fire at scene of explosion at Beirut's port on 4 August (AFP)

US Defence Secretary Mark Esper said on Wednesday that the devastating explosion in Beirut was an "accident", contradicting a claim made by President Donald Trump that it was "a terrible attack".

"Most believe that it was an accident, as reported, and beyond that, I have nothing further to report on. It's obviously a tragedy," Esper said during a virtual interview at the Aspen Security Forum on Wednesday.

Offering no evidence during a news conference on Tuesday, the US president said the blast in Beirut, which killed at least 100 and injured thousands, seemed to be "a terrible attack". 

In pictures: Aftermath of the Beirut explosion
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While Lebanese officials reported the blast was caused by a confiscated 2,700 tonne stockpile of ammonium nitrate at the city's main port, Trump said US generals believed the explosion was caused by a "bomb of some kind".

"I met with some of our great generals and they just seem to feel that it was [an attack]; this was not some kind of a manufacturing explosion type of event. This seems to be - according to them, they would know better than I would - but they seem to think it was [an] attack," Trump said. 

Three additional defence officials said there was no indication of an "attack", CNN reported.

The officials, who declined to be identified so they could speak freely, said they were unaware of where the president may have gotten such an indication. 

One official said if there had been real concern that such an attack had taken place, it would have immediately triggered an automatic increase in force protection for US troops and assets in the region for several reasons, including fears of retribution attacks, CNN reported. 

That official noted that none of that had happened so far, the news agency said. 

Neither the White House nor the Pentagon responded to Middle East Eye's requests for comments. 

Following Trump's remarks, Lebanese officials raised concerns with US diplomats, unnerved by the US president's use of the word "attack", two State Department officials told CNN.

The State Department has not commented on the nature of Tuesday's explosion, and a news briefing scheduled for Wednesday was postponed until Thursday. 

On Tuesday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo confirmed that the Lebanese government was investigating the cause of the blast, adding that the US looks forward to outcome of that inquiry.

Ammonium nitrate: What is it and how did it get to Beirut's port?

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There are still many details surrounding the cause of the explosion that devastated much of Beirut on Tuesday that remain murky and unexplained.

However, the Lebanese government has so far indicated that they believe the enormous blast to have been the result of 2,700 tonnes of the chemical compound ammonium nitrate left lying in a warehouse in Beirut port since 2013.

Middle East Eye has compiled a quick guide to the destructive compound and the circumstances surrounding its fateful detonation on Tuesday.

What is ammonium nitrate?

Ammonium nitrate is an industrial chemical commonly used for fertilisers, but also as an explosive, often used in mining.

The chemical, known by the formula NH4NO3, is a naturally white crystalline solid and is often known as saltpetre.

Under most conditions ammonium nitrate is not necessarily dangerous and is relatively stable - it can even be used to smother a fire.

However, if contaminated it can become highly volatile.

What previous incidents have there been?

The most notorious confirmed ammonium nitrate explosion prior to Tuesday was the 1947 Texas City Disaster.

On 16 April 1947, at the Port of Texas City, 2,300 tonnes of ammonium nitrate exploded, killing almost 500 people.

More than 5,000 people were injured and at least 1,000 buildings levelled in the surrounding area.

It was the deadliest industrial accident in US history and resulted in the first-class action lawsuit against the US government on behalf of 8,485 victims.

A more recent incident involving ammonium nitrate took place in 2015 when a series of explosions at a chemical plant in the Chinese port city of Tianjin killed 173 people and injured 798.

Among the blasts at the port was the detonation of 800 tonnes of ammonium nitrate.

Eventually Chinese courts handed jail sentences to 49 government officials and warehouse executives and staff over their involvement in circumventing and loosening safety standards enabling the storage of dangerous chemicals.

How did the chemical end up in the port?

The chemicals originally arrived at Beirut's port on board a Russian-owned cargo vessel flying a Moldovan flag in September 2013.

The shipping monitoring organisation ShipArrested.com at the time reported that "upon inspection of the vessel by Port State Control, the vessel was forbidden from sailing. Most crew except the master and four crew members were repatriated and shortly afterwards the vessel was abandoned by her owners after charterers and cargo concern lost interest in the cargo".

According to documents posted online and seen by Al Jazeera, the ship's dangerous cargo was then offloaded and placed in hangar 12.

Numerous letters were reportedly sent by customs officials, including former director of Lebanese customs Shafik Merhi, to judges between 2014 and 2017 asking for guidance on what to do with the chemicals.

One letter sent in 2016 - which noted there had been "no reply" to previous requests - said the ammonium nitrate was being kept in "unsuitable" conditions.

"In view of the serious danger of keeping these goods in the hangar in unsuitable climatic conditions, we reaffirm our request to please request the marine agency to re-export these goods immediately to preserve the safety of the port and those working in it, or to look into agreeing to sell this amount," said the letter.

Another letter was sent by Lebanese customs administration director general Badri Daher on 27 October 2017 urging a resolution to the situation, in light of "the danger ... of leaving these goods in the place they are, and to those working there".

Lebanon's Interior Ministry said it was not seeking international assistance with its investigation, but on Wednesday, Amnesty International called on the country to allow outside investigators to take part in the probe.

"Whatever may have caused the explosion, including the possibility of a large amount of ammonium nitrate stored unsafely, Amnesty International is calling for an international mechanism to be promptly set up to investigate how this happened," said Julie Verhaar, acting secretary-general of Amnesty International.

Esper also said that Washington had reached out to the Lebanese government to offer assistance, including humanitarian and medical aid.

"We're positioning ourselves to provide them whatever assistance we can, humanitarian and medical supplies," he said. "It's the right thing to do."