BEIRUT (Reuters) — French President Emmanuel Macron called for urgent support for Lebanon where he arrived on Thursday, two days after a devastating blast ripped through Beirut, killing 145 people and generating a seismic shock that was felt across the region.
Dozens are still missing after Tuesday’s blast at the port that injured 5,000 people and left up to a quarter of a million without homes fit to live in, hammering a nation already reeling from economic meltdown and a surge in coronavirus cases.
A security source said the death toll had reached 145, and officials said the figure was likely to rise.
Macron, making the first visit by a foreign leader since the explosion, promised to help organize international aid for Lebanon but said its government must implement economic reforms and crack down on corruption.
“If these reforms are not made, Lebanon will continue to suffer,” Macron said after being met by his Lebanese counterpart Michel Aoun at Beirut airport.
At the port, destroyed by Tuesday’s giant mushroom cloud and fireball, families gathered seeking news about the missing, amid public anger at the authorities for allowing highly explosive material to be stored there for years in unsafe conditions.
“They will scapegoat somebody to defer responsibility,” said Rabee Azar, a 33-year-old construction worker, speaking near the smashed remains of the port’s grain silo, surrounded by other mangled masonry and flattened buildings.
Prime Minister Hassan Diab declared three days of mourning from Thursday after the most devastating explosion ever to hit the city that is still scarred by civil war three decades ago.
With banks in crisis, a collapsing currency and one of the world’s biggest debt burdens, Economy Minister Raoul Nehme said Lebanon had “very limited” resources to deal with the disaster, which by some estimates may have cost the nation up to US$15 billion. He said the country needed foreign aid.
Offers of medical and other immediate aid have poured in, as officials have said hospitals, some heavily damaged in the blast, do not have enough beds and equipment. But Lebanon was already struggling to secure longer term, economic support.
The government’s failure to tackle a runaway budget, mounting debt and endemic corruption has prompted Western donors to demand reform. Gulf Arab states who once helped Lebanon have balked at bailing out a nation they say is increasingly influenced by their rival Iran.
Lebanon’s president blamed the explosion on 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate, used in fertilizers and bombs, that had been stored for six years at the port after it was seized. He promised to investigate and hold those responsible to account.
The government ordered some port officials to be put under house arrest.
But ordinary Lebanese, who have lost jobs and watched savings evaporate in the financial crisis, blamed politicians in charge during decades of state corruption and bad governance.
“Our leaders are crooks and liars. I don’t believe any investigation they will do. They destroyed the country and they’re still lying to the people. Who are they kidding?” said Jean Abi Hanna, 80, a retired port worker whose home was damaged and daughter and granddaughter injured in the blast.
An official source familiar with preliminary investigations blamed the incident on “inaction and negligence”, saying “nothing was done” to remove hazardous material.
‘All hell broke loose’
Some local media reported sightings of drones or planes flying in the area shortly before the explosion and some Beirut residents said they saw missiles fired. But officials have denied the incident was the result of any attack.
A Lebanese security source said the initial blaze that sparked the explosion was caused by welding work.
Veteran politician Walid Jumblatt, leader of Lebanon’s Druze community, called for an international investigation, saying he had “no trust” in the government to find out the truth.
The White House said the US government had still not ruled out the possibility that Tuesday’s explosion was an attack.
People who felt the explosive force said they had witnessed nothing comparable in years of conflict and upheaval in Beirut, which was devastated by the 1975-1990 civil war and since then has experienced big bomb attacks, unrest and a war with Israel.
“First we heard one sound. Seconds later there was a big explosion. All hell broke loose,” said Ibrahim Zoobi, who works near the port. “I saw people thrown five or six meters.”
Seismic tremors from the blast were recorded in Eilat on Israel’s Red Sea coast, about 580 km (360 miles) away.
Beirut Governor Marwan Abboud told Al Hadath TV total losses from the blast could reach $15 billion, including losses to businesses amid the broader fallout.
Operations have been paralyzed at Beirut port, Lebanon’s main route for imports needed to feed a nation of more than six million people, forcing ships to divert to smaller ports.
The World Bank said it would work with Lebanon’s partners to mobilize financing for reconstruction. But it was unclear whether this would affect Lebanon’s difficult negotiations with the International Monetary Fund.
By Samia Nakhoul, Ellen Francis
Reporting by Samia Nakhoul, Ellen Francis and Ghaida Ghantous; Writing by Dominic Evans; Editing by Edmund Blair
Image: Lebanon’s President Michel Aoun welcomes French President Emmanuel Macron upon his arrival at the airport in Beirut, Lebanon August 6, 2020. (Dalati Nohra/Handout via REUTERS)