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

FILE PHOTO: Caretaker Prime Minister Hassan Diab speaks after a Supreme Defense Council meeting at the presidential palace in Baabda, Lebanon November 10, 2020. Dalati Nohra/Handout via REUTERS/File Photo.

Reuters . Mon, December 14, 2020, 12:02 PM GMT+1
BEIRUT (Reuters) – Lebanon’s caretaker prime minister, Hassan Diab, has declined to be questioned by a judge who charged him and three former ministers with negligence over the Beirut port blast, an official source said on Monday.

The charges brought by Judge Fadi Sawan last week drew strong criticism from influential parties including the Shi’ite group Hezbollah and Sunni leader Saad al-Hariri.

Some politicians have suggested that Sawan was selective in deciding who to charge, and that he overstepped his powers by charging government ministers. Others have said he showed courage.

Diab, who took office in January, has said his conscience is clear over the Aug. 4 blast, which killed 200 people, injured thousands and devasted entire districts. He quit after the disaster but has continued to serve as a caretaker premier.

The explosion, one of the biggest non-nuclear blasts on record, was caused by a massive quantity of ammonium nitrate that had been stored unsafely for years.

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

After meeting with Diab on Friday, Hariri pledged not to let anyone violate the post of 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”.

(Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

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