A fire erupted in a landmark building in Beirut’s commercial district yesterday, the second blaze this month to send shudders through a capital still in shock after a massive port blast in August ripped through the Mediterranean city.
There were no immediate reports of casualties and the blaze was quickly extinguished, but it left residents exasperated in a nation that has been hammered by a deep economic crisis and which is waiting for its politicians to form a new government.
“It’s terrible. It’s unbelievable,” said Joe Sayegh, 48, who had been on a jog through the city before coming to the scene.
“Every day we have a problem.”
Fire trucks quickly doused the flames that charred a corner of the futuristic building designed by the practice set up by the late Zaha Hadid, the renowned British-Iraqi architect.
The building near the seafront and its curved lines have become a prominent feature of the central commercial area rebuilt after the 1975-1990 civil war.
Solidere, the company set up to reconstruct Beirut, said initial findings indicated the fire in the building, which has been under construction for years, was caused by an accident.
During rebuilding of Lebanon’s capital, skyscrapers designed by international architects have gone up and historical Ottoman-era buildings have been renovated.
But protests during an economic crisis that was caused by a mountain of debt had already driven many businesses out of the city centre and left many buildings scarred even before the August 4 port blast ruined another swathe of the capital.
The government resigned after the port blast, which was blamed on highly explosive ammonium nitrate kept in poor storage conditions for years.
The blast killed at least 190 people.
This month, a big port fire flared up among the ruined warehouses, adding to the devastation.
Beirut Bar Association chief Melhem Khalaf called on a judge investigating the port blast to also inquire into the “worrying” port blaze that could have compromised evidence.
Security agencies are looking into what caused the huge fire that broke out on Thursday at the port.
The blaze caused a storm of speculation on social media from experts and activists over the possibility that it was sparked deliberately to tamper with evidence at the explosion site.
Judge Fadi Sawan, who is leading the blast probe, dismissed the possibility that the fire was set to destroy evidence because it occurred outside an area designated by the judiciary as the zone of investigations into the explosion, a judicial source said.
But Khalaf said he was still alarmed by the incident, especially as Thursday’s blaze came only two days after a smaller fire had broken out at the port.
“Preserving the (blast) crime scene was the first thing we asked” of the probe, Khalaf said.
“Investigative judge (Sawan) should take over and carry on with investigations because what happened is unacceptable and worrying.”
The cause of last week’s fire remains unclear, but outgoing minister of public works and transport, Michel Najjar, has said that welding works could have sparked the blaze in the port’s duty free zone.
A security official said that investigators were also considering the possibility the port fire was sparked deliberately as part of an insurance fraud scheme, but they have yet to find any evidence.
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