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UNAUTHORISED STRUCTURAL alterations are suspected to have caused the collapse of a seven storey building in the Lebanese capital Beirut, killing a construction worker and three passers-by last month.

Eyewitnesses said the building began to shake before collapsing vertically and then sideways sending tonnes of rubble on to the busy street below.

The structure, which was being repaired, was reported locally to consist of two floors built in the 1960s from sandstone, with five floors built above from reinforced concrete in the 1970s. It was located in an area heavily bombed during the country's civil war and 1982 Israeli invasion.

Lebanese minister for public works Najeeb Mikati told NCEI that an investigation by the public prosecutor was under way, with six engineers heading an inquiry ordered by the country's president.

Beirut Mayor Abdel Mounem Ariss told NCEI that he believed unauthorised work was to blame.

'The owners had been given a permit to carry out some repair work, such as plastering, painting and replacement of floor tiles. The repairs involved are superficial and should not have affected any part of the structure. It is my personal opinion that there must have been some unauthorised work carried out, ' said Ariss, who is also a civil engineer.

Fatalities could have been much greater, as the building housed a school which was closed at the time of the collapse while people in neighbouring buildings were at prayers.

The collapse is the fourth since 1999 in Beirut, which contains many war-damaged buildings.

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