Beirut blast investigator forced to pause probe a second time

Beirut (AFP) –


The Lebanon judge leading the investigation into last year's huge port blast was forced to suspend his probe Tuesday for a second time, moments after issuing an arrest warrant against a former minister.

Tarek Bitar, who was appointed in February after his predecessor was removed for summoning senior officials, has become a target for political leaders, including Hezbollah chief Hasan Nasrallah, who demanded on Monday that an "honest and transparent" judge take up the case.

Bitar was previously forced to suspend the investigation for a week after three ex-ministers he had summoned on suspicion of negligence filed lawsuits last month requesting his removal.

A Beirut court this month turned down their requests, allowing Bitar to resume his work, before a new lawsuit filed by the same ministers to a different court forced the judge on Tuesday to pause the probe for a second time.

"This forced a suspension of the probe and a halt to all interrogation sessions" pending a court ruling on the lawsuit filed by ex-ministers Ali Hasan Khalil and Ghazi Zeaiter requesting Bitar's removal, a court official told AFP.

Shortly before he was notified of the latest lawsuit, Bitar had issued an arrest warrant against Khalil, a former finance minister and member of the Hezbollah-allied Amal Movement led by parliament speaker Nabih Berri, a court official said.

The warrant was issued after Khalil failed to show up for questioning on Tuesday, with his attorney appearing in his place to request more time to mount a defence, the court official added.

Bitar was also scheduled to interrogate Zeaiter, a former public works minister, within the next 24 hours before he was forced to halt his work.

Human rights groups and relatives of blast victims have condemned politicians for repeatedly obstructing the investigation into Lebanon's worst peace-time disaster.

The latest suspension is likely to fuel growing concerns that Bitar, like his predecessor, will be removed from the case for going after top political and security officials.

The Hezbollah chief accused Bitar on Monday of bias and working towards political objectives.

The August 4, 2020 explosion at Beirut port killed more than 200 people, wounded thousands more and destroyed swathes of the capital.

The Lebanese investigation into the tragedy has yet to identify a single culprit. Calls have grown for an international probe but they have been rejected by the authorities.