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PM declines to be questioned in Beirut blast probe, official source says

Lebanon’s caretaker prime minister, Hassan Diab, has declined to be questioned by the judge who charged him and three former ministers with negligence over the Beirut port blast, an official source said on Monday.

Investigating magistrate Fadi Sawan has been criticized for bringing charges by influential parties including the Shi’ite group Hezbollah and Sunni leader Saad al-Hariri.

Some politicians have suggested Sawan was selective in deciding who to charge and that he overstepped his powers by charging government ministers. Others, including the head of the Beirut Bar Association, have said the move showed courage.

Diab says his conscience is clear over the August blast, which killed 200 people, injured thousands and devastated entire districts. His cabinet, which took office in January, quit after the disaster but continues to serve in a caretaker role.

The explosion, one of the biggest non-nuclear blasts on record, was caused by a stockpile of ammonium nitrate detonating after being stored unsafely for years.

Sawan contacted Diab’s office last week to request an appointment on Monday but was told he would not agree to be questioned, the official source at the prime minister’s office said. Sawan could not immediately be reached for comment.

The caretaker interior minister, Mohammed Fahmi, said he would not enforce any arrest warrants for Diab or the other officials if they refused to be questioned.

“I would not order the security agencies to implement such a legal decision, and let them pursue me if they wish,” the Lebanese newspaper al-Joumhouria quoted him as saying.

After meeting with Diab on Friday, Hariri pledged not to let anyone violate the post of the prime minister – a seat reserved for a Sunni Muslim in the sectarian power-sharing system.

The three former ministers charged by Sawan are members of parties allied to Hezbollah, which said on Friday the charges smacked of “political targeting”. Two are members of the Shi’ite Amal Movement of Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri.

Lebanon’s senior Christian cleric, Maronite Patriarch Bechara Boutros Al-Rai, said on Sunday he hoped reactions to Sawan’s move would not obstruct the probe or cause “a national division on a sectarian basis for which we do not find any justification”.

Reuters

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