Esper: Fa­tal Beirut ex­plo­sion an ac­ci­dent

De­fense sec­re­tary breaks with pres­i­dent on cause

USA TODAY International Edition - - NEWS - Tom Van­den Brook

An ac­ci­dent was the likely cause of the ex­plo­sion in Beirut, De­fense Sec­re­tary Mark Esper said Wed­nes­day, con­tra­dict­ing a state­ment made by Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump on Tues­day that the blast that killed at least 135 peo­ple, wounded 5,000 and lev­eled a large por­tion of the city was an ap­par­ent at­tack.

“Most be­lieve it was an ac­ci­dent, as re­ported,” Esper said at the Aspen Se­cu­rity Con­fer­ence in Colorado.

At a White House briefing hours after the ex­plo­sion, Trump said he was briefed by “gen­er­als,” and “they seem to think it was an at­tack.” The Pen­tagon re­ferred ques­tions about that briefing to the Na­tional Se­cu­rity Coun­cil.

Esper said in­for­ma­tion was be­ing col­lected to de­ter­mine the cause of the blast. The Pen­tagon offered the Le­banese govern­ment aid, he said.

“It’s re­ally, re­ally bad,” Esper said. “It could have been much worse.”

Esper and Trump have been at odds on sev­eral is­sues over the summer. Last week, Esper de­fended the de­ci­sion to move 11,000 troops out of Ger­many as a strate­gic move to counter Rus­sia. Later that day, Trump called it ret­ri­bu­tion for

Ger­many’s fail­ure to pay more to NATO.

They have differed over ban­ish­ing Con­fed­er­ate names and em­blems from mil­i­tary bases. Trump fa­vors the names as his­toric.

Esper re­sisted in­vok­ing the In­sur­rec­tion Act to al­low fed­eral troops to quell protests this summer. Trump ar­gued for a more force­ful ap­proach.

Asked June 3 whether Trump had lost confidence in Esper over that is­sue, White House press sec­re­tary Kayleigh McE­nany offered a tepid en­dorse­ment.

“As of right now, Sec­re­tary Esper is still Sec­re­tary Esper,” she said.

Le­banese In­te­rior Min­is­ter Mo­hammed Fahmi told a TV sta­tion in Beirut that the dis­as­ter was ap­par­ently caused by the det­o­na­tion of tons of am­mo­nium ni­trate that had been stored in a port ware­house since it was confiscated from a cargo ship im­pounded in 2013.

Wed­nes­day, the Le­banese govern­ment or­dered port officials put under house ar­rest, pend­ing an in­ves­ti­ga­tion into why the am­mo­nium ni­trate was left at the port for years. In­ves­ti­ga­tors searched for clues in the wreck­age left by the ex­plo­sion.

Am­mo­nium ni­trate was used in the do­mes­tic ter­ror­ist bomb­ing in Ok­la­homa City in 1995, when a truck bomb con­tain­ing 2.4 tons of fer­til­izer and fuel oil killed 168 peo­ple in a fed­eral build­ing.

A se­nior U. S. De­fense De­part­ment official and mem­ber of the U. S. in­tel­li­gence com­mu­nity told The As­so­ci­ated Press there were no in­di­ca­tions the Beirut ex­plo­sion was the re­sult of an at­tack by ei­ther a na­tion state or proxy forces. Both in­di­vid­u­als spoke to the AP under con­di­tion of anonymity be­cause they were not au­tho­rized to dis­cuss in­tel­li­gence briefings pub­licly.

“It’s re­ally, re­ally bad. It could have been much worse.” Mark Esper De­fense sec­re­tary

De­fense Sec­re­tary Mark Esper said an ac­ci­dent was the likely cause of the ex­plo­sion in Beirut. CAROLYN KASTER/ AP

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