World News

Beirut airport needs new safety equipment, perimeter wall - minister

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Beirut airport needs at least $24 million (16.8 million pounds) to address pressing gaps in security, including a new wall and baggage inspection equipment, Public Works and Transport Minister Ghazi Zeaiter said on Tuesday.

A passenger aircraft taxis after landing at Beirut airport, Lebanon March 16, 2016. REUTERS/Russell Boyce

Building a new perimeter wall - which will cost $1.4 million - is the most urgent priority, he told journalists at the airport while authorities in Cyprus, 200 km (125 miles) away, negotiated a safe end to the hijacking of an EgyptAir flight.

Beirut airport’s decaying sea wall, protecting the western runway, is also a key concern and repairing it fully would cost up to $54 million, he said.

Zeaiter implied security and safety improvements had not been undertaken because financing approvals have been delayed.

“Today we need rapidly to decide the financing for the airport,” he said, adding that if a cabinet meeting on Thursday did not authorise financing for the new wall he would directly instruct the contractor to begin work.

Lebanon’s security concerns have escalated since the outbreak of war in neighbouring Syria, which has heightened already strained sectarian relations in the country.

A suicide bomb attack, one of many attacks to have hit Beirut and Tripoli since Syria’s conflict began, killed at least 43 people four months ago in southern Beirut, where the airport named after the assassinated Prime Minister Rafik Hariri is located.

Interior Minister Nohad Machnouk has said he is concerned about inadequate safety procedures at the airport. “There are security gaps in Beirut airport which must be plugged,” he said last week.

In those comments, he compared Beirut airport security to that at Egypt’s Sharm el-Sheikh, where a bomb planted on a Russian passenger plane killed 224 people in October. Zeaiter declined to comment on these remarks.

In spite of his list of concerns, Zeaiter sought to reassure travellers. “Rafik Hariri International Airport, despite these shortcomings at human or equipment level, is among the most secure airports in the world,” he said.

Editing by Tom Heneghan